Global Leadership Coaching

Doing business in Thailand

From a Thai’s perspective, a first meeting with new business partners has one main goal: to be able to classify each other. Thais are used to a very strong hierarchical differentiation between people!

Photo by Saulo Mohana on Unsplash

If a Thai meets a stranger, he first tries to identify the hierarchical levels as precisely as possible, because only if the social position of the new contact is clear, he can treat his counterpart correctly.

The status of a person can become visible, for example, due to the outer appearance, the age, the family name, the social connections, certain status symbols or the position in a company and income. 

Business cards help as well to classify the social status of a new business partner more precisely. Ideally, your name and position in the company are 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.

What is not obvious, will be found out later. That is why Thais will asked directly about your income or your family background, which foreigners often find too personal and indiscreet. For Thais, this is simply a means to an end.

Greeting along hierarchies

When greeting each other, it is already important to consider hierarchical distinctions. The younger person greets the older person or the hierarchically lower-level person greets the higher-level person first. 

For the traditional wai, the hands are folded in front of the body and one bends forward. The higher the person opposite is in the hierarchy, the higher your fingertips should point and the deeper you should bow.  

In some cases of clear rank-differences, the higher-level person doesn’t return the wai at all. Service personnel, for example, are not greeted back. Since this hierarchical thinking is firmly anchored in Thai society, one would rather embarrass subordinates with greeting them back. The Western believe, that all people are ultimately equal, is not shared in Thailand. 

Ignorance due to lack of classification

Thai people, who are not used to contact with foreigners, may have difficulties to classify you correctly in the social hierarchy. In order to avoid mistakes and to lose face, they may simply ignore you. This unpleasant situation can be avoided by asking your direct contact to introduce you.

Thailand is not an easy destination for business. So learn more about the Thai way of thinking to bridge any cultural gaps on the way to success!

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