Business etiquette

What to consider when doing business in Thailand

While Thai customs may seem very conservative to some westerners, Thai people are generally very relaxed and easy-going and will rarely take offence if a foreigner fails to follow Thai etiquette. However, you should be aware of some simple customs and try to avoid certain comments or actions.

Business etiquette

Due to the difficulty of traveling around large Thai cities, many foreign executives tend to schedule no more than two meetings per day. Traffic in Bangkok is so bad that many Thai business people conduct meetings from their cars via cell phones, laptops and fax machines.

If you wish to avoid the Bangkok gridlock, you can always commute by boat.

Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, except in some parts of the south where many people are Muslim. Most Buddhist holidays are in April and May and most business people go on vacation during these months. Therefore, the best time to do business in Thailand is between November and March.

What to avoid

Any negative comments about the country and King should be avoided. If you insult the country and the King, you will almost certainly stop any chance of building good relationships with the Thai and it could possibly even lead to legal action. You should make sure you treat all images of the royal family with respect.

Any image of a Buddha should also be treated with extreme respect. Do not point the soles of your feet in the direction of a Buddha or touch or deface any image or statue of a Buddha or monk.

In Thai Buddhism, the head is regarded as sacred. For example, passing items over someone's head can cause great offence. Similarly, the feet are considered dirty. The feet should not be used to point to things and should not be placed near any objects that are associated with the head.

Do not pass anything with your left hand, and never point with one finger.

It is common practice to remove shoes before entering a Thai home. Thai people are very conscious about cleanliness and wearing shoes inside is not appreciated.

General Etiquette

Courtesy is very important to Thai people. Being polite and respectful to others is considered essential to maintaining good relationships. Speaking softly and smiling warmly will always help to create positive feelings.

As in many other Asian countries, you should avoid angering or insulting someone (causing someone to “lose face”). Open criticisms and negative responses are seen as an insult to other people and can cause them to think disrespectfully of you. If you need to give a negative response, do so indirectly.

Public displays of emotion are best avoided. It is considered inappropriate to show anger or a negative emotion.

There is a strong hierarchy in Thai society which is evident at many levels. When Thai people meet someone for the first time, it is not unusual for them to ask several questions in order to establish where they fit within the hierarchy. These questions may seem very personal to some foreigners but it is best to accept them in good nature and don't be insulted.

The family is the center of Thai life. This Thai hierarchy is also present amongst families, and parents are at the top. Family members often depend on and support each other. Generally, a group is considered more important than an individual. It is also not uncommon for wealthier friends to pay the bill for drinks or dinner.

Greetings

Thai greetings often involve a wai. To wai, the hands are raised as if in prayer and the head is bowed.

There are strict rules concerning who and how to wai. Generally, the younger person initiates the wai. The lower the head is bowed, the more respect is shown. As foreigners are usually not expected to know the wai etiquette, mistakes will be excused. However, if you are not sure how to wai, it is generally better not to wai at all.

Business Etiquette

Thai people prefer to build personal relationships before discussing business. Very often, issues will need to be repeatedly discussed and at many different levels before any decisions are made. Therefore, it will be likely that several meetings will take place before anything gets started. Initial meetings will always take place over lunch or drinks and entertainment is part of developing business relationships. Thai people generally value enjoyment (kwam sanuk).

Thai people laugh very easily and a foreigner can minimize his errors or embarrassment through laughter. If somebody starts laughing without any apparent reason, it is best to change the subject. He or she is probably embarrassed.

Body language is important in Thai communication and respect and politeness should always be shown. Being receptive to subtle body language and indirect replies will help to avoid confusion and misunderstandings.

Appointments for meetings should be made well in advance. It is a good idea to confirm the details of the meeting the day before the arranged day. By arriving on time, you are showing respect and foreigners and Thai people are all expected to arrive on time.

A business card should be offered with the right hand. Take time to read the card and make a polite comment about it.

Dress code in Thailand

Appearance is very important to Thai people. Business dress code in Thailand is conservative. Men should wear dark suits, white shirts and a tie. Women should wear plain conservative dresses or suits. If skirts are worn, they should be knee-length or longer. The shoulders should always be covered. Smart shoes, and socks without holes are essential in case whereby shoes are to be removed. Do not wear black as this is only worn to funerals.

On casual occasions men should wear slacks and shirts and women skirts and blouses. Jeans are usually also worn by both men and women.

Due to the difficulty of traveling around large Thai cities, many foreign executives tend to schedule no more than two meetings per day. Traffic in Bangkok is so bad that many Thai business people conduct meetings from their cars via cell phones, laptops and fax machines.

If you wish to avoid the Bangkok gridlock, you can always commute by boat.

Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, except in some parts of the south where many people are Muslim. Most Buddhist holidays are in April and May and most business people go on vacation during these months. Therefore, the best time to do business in Thailand is between November and March.

What to avoid

Any negative comments about the country and King should be avoided. If you insult the country and the King, you will almost certainly stop any chance of building good relationships with the Thai and it could possibly even lead to legal action. You should make sure you treat all images of the royal family with respect.

Any image of a Buddha should also be treated with extreme respect. Do not point the soles of your feet in the direction of a Buddha or touch or deface any image or statue of a Buddha or monk.

In Thai Buddhism, the head is regarded as sacred. For example, passing items over someone's head can cause great offence. Similarly, the feet are considered dirty. The feet should not be used to point to things and should not be placed near any objects that are associated with the head.

Do not pass anything with your left hand, and never point with one finger.

It is common practice to remove shoes before entering a Thai home. Thai people are very conscious about cleanliness and wearing shoes inside is not appreciated.

General Etiquette

Courtesy is very important to Thai people. Being polite and respectful to others is considered essential to maintaining good relationships. Speaking softly and smiling warmly will always help to create positive feelings.

As in many other Asian countries, you should avoid angering or insulting someone (causing someone to “lose face”). Open criticisms and negative responses are seen as an insult to other people and can cause them to think disrespectfully of you. If you need to give a negative response, do so indirectly.

Public displays of emotion are best avoided. It is considered inappropriate to show anger or a negative emotion.

There is a strong hierarchy in Thai society which is evident at many levels. When Thai people meet someone for the first time, it is not unusual for them to ask several questions in order to establish where they fit within the hierarchy. These questions may seem very personal to some foreigners but it is best to accept them in good nature and don't be insulted.

The family is the center of Thai life. This Thai hierarchy is also present amongst families, and parents are at the top. Family members often depend on and support each other. Generally, a group is considered more important than an individual. It is also not uncommon for wealthier friends to pay the bill for drinks or dinner.

Greetings

Thai greetings often involve a wai. To wai, the hands are raised as if in prayer and the head is bowed.

There are strict rules concerning who and how to wai. Generally, the younger person initiates the wai. The lower the head is bowed, the more respect is shown. As foreigners are usually not expected to know the wai etiquette, mistakes will be excused. However, if you are not sure how to wai, it is generally better not to wai at all.

Business Etiquette

Thai people prefer to build personal relationships before discussing business. Very often, issues will need to be repeatedly discussed and at many different levels before any decisions are made. Therefore, it will be likely that several meetings will take place before anything gets started. Initial meetings will always take place over lunch or drinks and entertainment is part of developing business relationships. Thai people generally value enjoyment (kwam sanuk).

Thai people laugh very easily and a foreigner can minimize his errors or embarrassment through laughter. If somebody starts laughing without any apparent reason, it is best to change the subject. He or she is probably embarrassed.

Body language is important in Thai communication and respect and politeness should always be shown. Being receptive to subtle body language and indirect replies will help to avoid confusion and misunderstandings.

Appointments for meetings should be made well in advance. It is a good idea to confirm the details of the meeting the day before the arranged day. By arriving on time, you are showing respect and foreigners and Thai people are all expected to arrive on time.

A business card should be offered with the right hand. Take time to read the card and make a polite comment about it.

Dress code in Thailand

Appearance is very important to Thai people. Business dress code in Thailand is conservative. Men should wear dark suits, white shirts and a tie. Women should wear plain conservative dresses or suits. If skirts are worn, they should be knee-length or longer. The shoulders should always be covered. Smart shoes, and socks without holes are essential in case whereby shoes are to be removed. Do not wear black as this is only worn to funerals.

On casual occasions men should wear slacks and shirts and women skirts and blouses. Jeans are usually also worn by both men and women.

Further reading

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