The Thai Character : Ego Orientation
1. Ego Orientation
The Thai are first and foremost ego oriented, characterized by the highest ego value of being Independent- being oneself (Pen tua khong tua eng), and a very high value of Self esteem. Closer inspection reveals that it is constantly ranked top priority, with the exception of farmers who ranked it relatively low (8th) among all Thai groups.
Thai people have a very big ego, a deep sense of independence, pride and dignity. They cannot tolerate any violation of the "ego" self. Despite the cool and calm front, they can be easily provoked to strong emotional reactions, if the "self' or anybody close to the "self" like one's father or mother, is insulted.
There are countless number of examples in the media, where people can readily injure or kill another person for seemingly trivial insults. As an example, at a party in which the host was celebrating his winning the black-market lottery, a guest (guest A) was getting impatient for the delayed local puppet show and started making noises. Angry when he was reprimanded by another guest (guest B), he yelled at guest B to mind his own business. Apparently, guest B's big ego cannot take guest A's remark, he beat A's head with a whisky bottle, and gunned him down right between his eyes.
Another was the case of former Deputy Prime Minister General Chavalit Yongjaiyudh who promptly resigned from the Cabinet in June 1990, after PM's Office Minister Police Captain Chalerm Yoobamrung criticized General Chavalit's wife as a "walking jewelry case" in public. This incident triggered off the Supreme Commander General Sunthorn Kongsomppong to defend the former Army C-in-C's dignity by demanding the Prime Minister to remove Chalerm. The sequence of these overt conflicts contributed to the resignation of the Prime Minister in December 9, 1990. Although Prime Minister Chatichai reshuffled his Cabinet, the open rift with the military elite was irreparably widened.
Basically, it boils down to the question of "face" and "dignity". Violation to the "ego" self cannot be tolerated. Numerous examples can be found everyday to illustrate this important value orientation. Many analyses use Buddhist influence to explain why the Thai are so gentle, ever-smiling, non-aggressive, affable and have high tolerance for uncertainty. However, they fail to explain the sudden emotional outbursts of Thai behavior. Incidents of violent actions ranging from breaking up of relations, verbal and physical fights, to killing, can be found both in the less religious urban Thai as well as in the more religious oriented rural Thai, and more so with the hooligan (Nak-leng) class who can easily be provoked with just a non-verbal stare.
Since the "ego" of the Thai is so important, it naturally follows that the Thai have the "avoidance mechanism" to fend off unnecessary clashes. And this intricate mechanism is delicately and keenly observed by all parties involved in an interaction. It is only cases where indirect means are not used that interactions will result in negative feelings and emotional outburst if provoked in public. Therefore, using the "Buddhism-explain-all" blanket approach, that Buddhism teaches non-self, avoidance of emotional extremes, detachment, etc., might have missed quite a bit of reality.
This "ego" orientation is the root value underlying various key values of the Thai, such as "face-saving", "criticism-avoidance, and the Kreng jai attitude which roughly means "feeling considerate for another person, not want to impose or cause other person trouble, or hurt his/her feeling".
The "face" is identical with "ego" and is very sensitive. Since the Thai give tremendous emphasis on "face" and "ego", preserving one another's "ego" is the basic rule of all Thai interactions both on the continuum of familiarity-unfamiliarity, and the continuum of superior-inferior, with difference only in degree. Even a superior would also observe not to intrude too much of the subordinate or the inferior's ego. For a Thai, this is not something to be taken for granted. They intuitively observe this root of interpersonal social rules. Each knows his appropriate role, appropriate means to handle interactions when roles come into contact, and how far one can go, and so on.
Primary Source : Fr. Peter S. Niphon SDB, Hat Yai
Full unedited text (includes footnotes and references)
Secondary Source : S. KOMIN, Psychology of the Thai People: Values and Behavioral Patterns. Bangkok, Research Center, National Institute of Development Administration.