Pretty Pictures

October 1, 2001

Being polite in Thailand is based on many of the country’s unique customs and etiquettes but also has some basics: dressing appropriately, letting someone pull out in front of you in rush hour traffic, sharing your snacks with friends or offering your bus seat to someone who needs it.

The Thai word for polite remains unchanged from its origin in the Pali language. The Thai (and Pali) word for polite is “suphaap.” “Su” means good and is a prefix. “Phaap” means 1) sight or 2) appearance.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines polite as “1. marked by consideration for others, correct manners, or tact. 2. refined; elegant.” Politeness in both definitions is based on what others see and how they interpret that when they look at you.

There are many unique social values that play a part in being polite in every country. Polite is just the final outcome. Being polite is important everywhere but how it is expressed in Thailand can be strange to the western eye.

In my opinion, the art of gift giving in Thailand helps illustrate the country’s definition of polite. Presents come meticulously wrapped regardless of what is in them. What has been chosen as a present is important, too, but whether it is a refrigerator magnet, a coffee cup or a luxurious wedding gift, it will look stunning. Presentation plays a major role in giving that special something to someone. Thais apply the same principal as given to presents when presenting themselves. A smiling face, a soft-spoken voice, a cool, calm and collected exterior, and some nice clothes will help you go further. Want to tell the waitress her service is exceptionally bad? Speak softly and with a smile. Rude behaviour is accepted if it looks fine on the outside. In a foul mood? Wish you could smack the person sitting next to you? Have a really bad day? Just don’t show it. Avoid conflict. Easier said than done if you ask me.

In Thailand cars are usually squeaky clean. People typically overdress for most occasions and put as much effort into their personal appearance as their wallets will allow them. Making a good appearance often means displaying wealth. It is very important to be seen talking on the latest model cellular phone or driving a nice Mercedes (even though they are more than likely bought on credit). Expensive clothing, displays of gold and designer labels all contribute to a polite image.

Interestingly, most Thais that I know do not tend to view the inside of their homes as the most important part of their image. Homes that look nice on the outside often fall short once you step inside. Most efforts are placed in making a good public image while out walking around where many people can see you. This is rather the opposite from the western “My home is my castle” school of thought. Westerners tend to like to invite people into our homes whereas Thais usually shy away from this probably in part because their home does not live up to their image.

My house looks nice on the outside. Inside there are some conspicuous looking and impressive features; bathroom fixtures from Germany, a designer lamp from Italy and some marble floors. What goes on in the plumbing system and inside the walls is a completely different story. The house is falling apart and it is only twelve years old. When I move out my landlord plans to bulldoze the place and start again, of course keeping the nice fixtures for the new one he will build.

Being polite can also consist of pretending that everything is fine when something is tremendously wrong. This applies not only to the business world but also to social circles. If you don’t mention a problem and don’t show a problem, the problem goes away (at least for a while). Sometimes being polite takes on an almost chameleon quality. You need to know what the person looking at you wants to see or hear and then perform accordingly.

If two neighbours who are at war with one another because one likes to blast the stereo at night while the other wishes for some quiet and sleep, they will still be found sitting together laughing and enjoying a meal or a drink. If you did not have insider information on the strife, you would swear that absolutely everything was more than fine. This is strange to me but completely normal for those involved. We tend to prefer the ‘everything is just fine’ approach in the West also but in Thailand, it is taken to the extreme.

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