Learn Thai Culture

Thai Elephants

Leave Your Complaints Somewhere Else

In America, and most of the western world, people like to complain. We like to complain about a bad restaurant, about a bad neighbor, or how homework sucks, or how a teacher is just terrible. We like to insult our leaders (who hasnt made a Bush joke?), or just whine on a bad day. Complaining is part of western culture. Its part of who we are.

In Thai culture this is very much not the case. In the land of smiles its considered crude to complain. If you have a problem, deal with it, no one else wants to hear it. Its also very rude to complain to someone that is causing you distress, as it is pratically insulting them in front of their face!

Being opposite cultures in this respect is obviously bound to cause serious friction. Lets start with the impression a Thai would have watching a foreigner complain. Mostly, the foreigner will appear as an "ugly American." There is good reason - complaining is really crude and offensive in Thai culture! Even worse, it is considered 10x more rude to complain to your elders. Complain to someone older than you, and you are doing a double whammy by breaking the age rules of Thai culture, too!

But Americans see nothing wrong with criticism. Its everywhere, our newspapers, our blogs, our protests, our letters to politicians. Most Americans think criticism actually makes the world a better place. After all, how could a problem get fixed if no one points it out? Ignoring the problem only makes it worse!

Many foreigners living in Thailand get very frustrated when their 'letters to the editor' and other complaints get shot down and/or ignored. "What is wrong with those Thai people!? There is obviously a problem, why wont they admit it?! Mai bpen rai isn't going to cut it!!!" But being in another culture, you have to play by their rules - not yours. But this can sometimes be frustrating as it often goes against core beliefs . . . so there must be a balance, a middle way in which both sides can be happy yet save face. I call it sugar coated constructive criticism. =P

Thai's actually do complain, but not in the direct western manner. Instead they go at it from the side, being extremely careful and sensitive at the same time. If you and them have a common friend, they will talk through the common friend to get things resolved. Back during my first Thailand visit . . . I screwed up . . . a lot . . . so I would get a lot of complaints through my Thai friend as it was considered much more polite that way than approaching me directly.

But also, you should know when to complain. Pick your battles wisely. Not worth a huge inconvience to remove a small inconvience. Highly sensitive constructive criticism, only. Nothing direct. Be especially careful if you are talking to someone older than you.

The Way
Just remember that going the direct route, in Thai culture, makes you look un-refined and arrogant. Being extra tactful can get you a long way!