Thailand means “Land of the Free”. Keeping this in mind, you should give businesses in Thailand plenty of time and space when negotiating business.
You should arrange your first business appointment with your Thai partners well in advance, but make sure to contact them in person sometime in the days before your departure to confirm the appointment.
Scheduled meetings rarely start on time in Thailand, sometimes not even on the date scheduled. This is partly due to traffic problems in Bangkok and other cities, but also to the fact that punctuality is not very important here. Time is viewed as cyclical in Thailand. What cannot be done today will be postponed until tomorrow. As time is cyclical so are business opportunities. Business success is therefore often left up to fate.
You should nevertheless make every effort to arrive on time. It is definitely expected of you. If you then have to wait for your Thai discussion partners, because they are still in another meeting, show true greatness by appearing patient and relaxed. When the meeting does get underway, start the conversation on a positive note. Remember that keeping you waiting is not a sign of a lack of respect. In Thailand, the clocks just tick differently.
From a Thai point of view, the first meeting has one main goal: to be able to suss each other out. Thai people do not just accept a hierarchical distinction between people, they even want it! You must therefore never ignore the different hierarchical levels in business life. However, this is often not so easy – not even for the Thai themselves.
If a Thai meets a stranger, they will immediately try to figure out which level of the hierarchy they belong to. It is only when the social position of a new contact is clear that it is possible to treat the other person appropriately.
A person’s status can become clear, for example, from their appearance, age, professional position, family name, social connections or status symbols or income. Therefore you will be asked directly for these details, a way of doing things which foreigners often find too personal and indiscreet. For Thais, this is simply a means to an end.
As a foreign manager, it is therefore important to dress and present yourself according to your own status. Designer labels, high-quality fabrics, polished shoes and an expensive watch underline your personal status.
The dress code in Thailand is conservative. Men should choose a dark blue or dark grey suit with a light shirt and tie. Women should wear a knee-length skirt suit. Nylon stockings and closed shoes are compulsory and shoulders must be covered. But don’t worry, Thai office buildings are air-conditioned and it will be cool inside.
Business cards and participant lists
Business cards in particular help to identify the status of a business partner more precisely. Ideally, your name and position in the company should be written in Thai on the back of the card. If two larger groups or delegations meet, you should send a list of participants with names and positions in the company in advance.
Hierarchical distinctions must be taken into account as early as during greeting. The younger person must greet the older person first and the hierarchically subordinate person must also greet the superior first.
The traditional greeting Wai is done by folding your hands in front of your body and bowing slightly. If the person on the other side is hierarchically higher, your fingertips point higher and you bow deeper. Hands are folded at four different heights: chest, chin, the tip of nose and forehead.
If there are clear differences in rank, the person of higher rank will not return the Wai. It should also be noted that the Wai is not returned to service staff, waiters, sales staff, etc. Since hierarchical thinking is firmly anchored in society, a greeting, perhaps friendly from a Western point of view, would be more embarrassing for subordinates than appreciating them as a person. The Western idea that all people are ultimately equal does not exist in Thailand.
Use the Wai not only as a greeting, but also to say thank you or to show respect to a person in general.
As a foreigner, however, you will also be forgiven if you simply return the Wai with a friendly smile and a slight nod.
After greeting, state your full name and hand over your business card with both hands. If at all possible, the person holding the highest rank should receive the business card first.
Be sure to study your Thai counterpart’s business card and make an appreciative remark. Only then may you carefully place the business card in a case or in front of you on the table.
Thai people who are not used to contact with foreigners may find it difficult to place them in the right social hierarchy. To avoid making a mistake and thereby losing face, you may simply be ignored. This unpleasant situation can be avoided by asking your direct contact to introduce you with your name and position.
Form of address
After this round of interviews, you will either be called “Mr.” plus your last name, e.g. “Mr Miller”, or in Thai with “Khun” plus your first name, e.g. “Khun Stephen”. “Khun” is the polite form for both Mr. and Mrs.
In Thailand, people tend to address each other by their first names, and when they know each other better, even by a personal nickname.
At the beginning of the meeting, you should give a gift to your Thai hosts. Bring something from your home country or chocolates without alcoholic filling – those are always very welcome. The gift should be elaborately wrapped, preferably in gold-coloured wrapping paper. You will be thanked politely, but the gift will not be opened until after the meeting.
You should not show up empty-handed at subsequent meetings either. The gift culture is very strong in Thailand.
After the complex hierarchical classification of all persons involved, the next milestone of a first business meeting in Thailand is getting to know each other—i.e. details of the project or the product to be sold are not yet talked about.
The only thing on the agenda initially is the development of a personal relationship, which is best done during joint activities or an extensive meal.
Don’t think of these activities where small talk prevails as a waste of time. Instead, show interest in your counterpart, show your respect. The aim of all this small talk is to create a harmonious environment in order to establish a good working relationship. Suitable small talk topics are exclusively topics that touch common ground! By the way, Thai people like to talk about food.
As it takes time to build relationships in Thailand, this first meeting will be followed by many more meetings and informal gatherings, before slowly approaching business issues. Don’t expect concrete results after this first meeting, but spend the time to cultivate your new contacts. Patience and endurance are the order of the day here!