The Thai Character : Smooth Interpersonal Relationship Orientation


3. Smooth Interpersonal Relationship Orientation

Unlike some Western cultures whose top values tend to focus on Self-actualization, Ambition and achievement, down-playing such values of Self-control and Politeness, the Thai, after pricing "ego" and "a grateful relationship", place high value on a group of 'other-directed' social interaction values - all added up to project a picture of smooth, kind, pleasant, no-conflict interpersonal interactions. This orientation is characterized by the preference for a non-assertive, polite and humble type of personality (expressed through appearance, manners, and interpersonal approach), as well as the preference for a relaxed, and pleasant interaction which accounts for the "smiling" and "friendly" aspects of the Thai people, fascinating most foreign visitors.

Using Komin's terminology, this group of `other-directed' social interaction values is called "social smoothing" values. They are projected by the following values, listed according to their rank order of importance:

1. Care and Consideration

2. Kindness and Helpfulness

3. Responsiveness to Situations and Opportunities

4. Self-Control, Tolerance and Restraint

5. Politeness and Humbleness

6. Calmness and Cautiousness

7. Content

8. Social Relations

S. Komin reported that the first two values - Care and Consideration, and Responsiveness to Situations and Opportunities - have never slipped from the high value group. Moreover the whole group of "social smoothing" values have consistently shown to have very few variations across groups and over time. Almost no significant differences were found when considering different backgrounds, such as sex, education level, occupation, wealth, political affiliation, or religion..

This finding is indeed exciting, because it suggests that, more than anything else, the consistency across groups and over time, is due to the uniform perception from the Thai of all walks of life, and that these values are deeply internalized and are actively functional in the everyday life of the Thai. And the Thai are intuitively keen in observing and practicing these subtle social rules.

3.1. Core of "Social Smoothing" Values

What constitutes the core and essence of this group of "social smoothing" values? As a group, each of these values reflects certain aspect of interpersonal interaction traits or goals. Among them, the core value rests on the value of Care and Consideration, the highest and thus psychologically more significant value, as it indicates the deepest reason for the surface smooth and pleasant interpersonal interactions. This is obviously a Thai cultural-laden value, and an important means to maintain or preserve one another's feeling and ego (Raksa nam jai kan). This value shares the closest meaning with the concept of Kreng jai mentioned earlier in relation to "ego" preserving. While Kreng jai is a base concept, Raksa nam jai kan or Care and Consideration slightly emphasizes more the interactional aspect of the concept.

The cognition of the Thai social interaction projected by the group of social smoothing values, is as follows: that at all time, one shall be careful not to hurt another person's feeling ("ego"), for example, not to criticize as well as not to reject another person's kindness or good intention, even though it is contrary to one's own feelings. The fact that one disagrees with another person's opinion or is not convenient or comfortable to accept another person's kindness, etc., does not entitle him/her to hurt the other's "ego".

Therefore, being flexible (Responsive to situations and opportunities) in not doggedly forcing and asserting one's own desire at times of potential differences and conflicts, is of prime importance in the Thai society. Besides, showing of Nam jai (literally means `water from the heart', ie., kindness, consideration, and sincere concerns) in being Kind and helpful, is something to give out without any expectation in return. The Thai are not calculative in the showing of kindness and help. This is why it has been overtly observed by foreigners that Thai interactions are usually smooth pleasant, and "often accompanied by genuine kindness and an interest in the well-being of the other."

There are countless daily examples to illustrate this Thai social interaction behavioral pattern. This pattern retains even at unusual events, like coup d'état. The coup d'état in Thailand, as often as we have, are not like anywhere else. As expressed by the Japanese ambassador to Thailand in a television interview, they are "friendly changing of government leaders" or Palace guards, hardly bloody. The deposed Prime Ministers were often escorted out of the country to live for a period of time, before they were allowed back.

3.2. Successful Personality

Besides showing positive gestures of sincere kindness and concerns, in order for interaction to go smoothly, it also requires on the part of interactors, such characteristic traits as having a certain degree of Self Control, Tolerance and Restraint , as well as Politeness and Humbleness. This polite and humble "front" or polite and humble approach is very important for the Thai, since it soothes one another's "ego". It naturally follows that showing of one's aggressiveness and superiority, even overt self-confidence, more often than not, brings about only negative perception of Man sai (feeling indicating a mixture of jealousy and disgust) from the interactor and audience in general. Frequently, this term is used to comment about that person behind his back.

Time and again has proved that a successful personality in the Thai cultural context, is often one of competence and substance, but most important of all, one has to have a soft and polite appearance, presentation and approach - as best illustrated in the Thai phrase Orn Nork Khaeng nai which literally means "soft outward, solid and firm inside". A number of Western educated highly competent and superiority projecting personalities, known for their straightforwardness (Khid yangrai ko phood yang nan, meaning `Speak what one thinks') and integrity in standing-up for what they believe, cannot stay long in the organization, after receiving only indirect, slow and non-cooperative performances for a while.

Even in religious circles, which are supposed to be more spiritual in orientation, again there are many cases of highly competent, no-nonsense, more outspoken, more principled and achievement oriented intellectuals, who are often blocked by the typical silent boycott or passive cooperation.

For interactions to be smoothly processed and without overt conflicts, such characteristics of being Calm and Cautious - Jai yen, the ability to calm oneself as well as calmly control situations by taking a slow, and careful step - is indeed of prime importance. This value is activated when a Thai faces problems or conflicts. And all these "social smoothing" values purport to maintain good Social Relations.

These "social smoothing" values relatedly project a picture of smooth, kind, pleasant, no conflict, interpersonal interactions - in short, the surface harmony as observed by many. They are the necessary means to function successfully in Thai society. And the Thai are intuitively keen in observing and practicing these subtle implicit social rules too.

It is however important to note that behind the smooth, pleasant, and polite interaction, is the respect for one another's ego, dignity, and psychological integrity - the core concern of not to hurt others. It is the balance between the positive "ego" self on the one hand, and on the other hand, keeping the smooth and pleasant interactions as the means to preserve one another's ego as well as an end in itself from which the Thai derive pleasure and genuine enjoyment. It is this element of the positive value of the "ego" self that lies beneath the relaxed personality and the relaxed and Sanuk (fun) interactions, enjoying certain measure of independence by being one's own master without disturbing others, ever adjusting one's equilibrium to environment, while strictly observing all those interpersonal and interactional social rules. This is the core cognition behind the behavioral pattern of the everyday life social interactions of the Thai. And it is this value of smooth and pleasant interpersonal interaction that gives Thai people the image of being very "friendly" people, and Thailand, the "Land of smile".

4. Flexibility and Adjustment Orientation

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.