Gossip, Respect & Office Politics

Harmless Fun

Workplace gossip is pretty common. There’s always a rumour floating around about what someone got up to at the Christmas party. But in my experience it’s normally harmless fun and indulging in a little gossip is a nice interlude.

In Thailand, it’s so much more than this. It genuinely seems to determine the effectiveness of your entire team. No matter what you’re doing to manage workload and engagement,  the complexities of the individual relationships actually make the real difference.

There is so much going on behind the scenes that Farang managers will never know about, nor understand. Right now, there are so many people within my extended team who are not speaking to each other I’m surprised anything is getting done!

A Little Respect…

From what I’ve observed so far, it all seems to boil down to respect, or lack thereof. As a Farang, I feel somewhat protected from the ‘respect’ conundrum in Thailand. During the  Cross-Cultural Management course (as described in The Cross-Cultural Challenge – Part 2), we learned that Farangs sit outside the hierarchy of Thai society. It seems there’s a default respect for Farangs even if they don’t do much to earn it. For me, it means that I don’t really have to worry that much about people respecting me, but also that I will never truly be let into or understand the inner workings of our workplace community.

Too Big for Their Boots?

The latest series of fallouts mostly involve young colleagues apparently not showing enough respect to their elders. This is a difficult one for me. In my younger working life, I was encouraged to step outside my comfort zone and take chances. I was often involved in projects that were ‘above my paygrade’, so to speak. And actually, my empowering management style has only encouraged the younger staff to take more initiative.

The unfortunate side effect is that they seem to have got ‘too big for their boots’ and are now calling out their more senior colleagues quite publicly. Maybe they are being a bit rude but I imagine they’re probably touching a nerve! Anyway, it doesn’t seem that I can have much influence on any of this other than to make it worse. So I need to let it play out.

The Unforgiven

The other observation I’ve made is that once two people have fallen out and declared themselves enemies, there is no going back. There are two representatives of my main customer with adjacent offices who will not even look at each other let alone speak to each other! Actually, if they do ever have to attend the same meeting, they will sometimes have an almighty spat which is both bizarre and entertaining to witness.

And generally, nobody knows why they fell out in the first place. Or the reason is just inexplicably complex, far too much for my Farang brain to comprehend. Earlier this year I had two colleagues join the team who had previously been very close friends. They’d worked together and socialised together. But then for some unknown reason, one of them decided they had been gravely wronged by the other. And that was the end of their friendship. The only resolution was for one to transfer to another site. I still don’t understand what the problem was!

A Question of Morals

I had been led to believe that extra-marital activities were fairly common in Thailand. Many married men had a mistress or ‘mia noi’ as it’s known here, and this was just widely accepted. So I was quite surprised that there was such outrage recently when a workplace affair came to light.

Actually, the whole episode had been going on for a long time, although I’d been oblivious to it. Steps had previously been taken to address the situation by moving one half of the offending couple to another site. At the time the reasons given to me for this move were probably quite standard, career progression etc. I had no reason to question it.

But then for various reasons (that with hindsight were probably complete rubbish) this person returned to their previous role. And then it all kicked off again! I think maybe people are only bothered if they feel it’s happening right in front of their eyes. Maybe they accept it if there’s a bit more discretion?

It’s amazing that I even know about it! But I’m still not clear if anyone expects me to do anything about it? I cannot tell if this is a serious workplace issue affecting many people or if it’s just being stirred up by one person with their own agenda. Is it even really happening?

For now, I shall steer clear of the whole thing and let the Thais deal with it themselves. Hopefully, I won’t have to hear about it again!

 

Personal Safety in Thailand

A Dangerous Place to Drive
I think it’s fairly well known that Thailand is in the top ten of most dangerous places to drive in the World.  Around 24,000 people die on the roads in Thailand every year. Holiday seasons like New Year and Songkran are the most dangerous times as almost everyone seems to be travelling and partying at the same time. But actually, there is constant risky behaviour on the roads.

Our First Thai Wedding!

No More ‘Firsts’

As we’ve passed the one year in Thailand milestone, it feels like we’re running out of ‘firsts’. I’ve already been for my second annual medical and have renewed my work permit. Our second Christmas is fast approaching and we feel like we know the drill for New Year and Songkran. I’m sure I’ll still feel like an idiot the next time I have to ‘make merit’ but at least I will know what to expect.

So, I was very excited when we got our first wedding invitation! The invitation was from one of Chris’ staff at work and we were requested to attend the evening reception. I think it’s quite normal for only close family and friends to attend the actual ceremonial parts of the day. A wider group then joins in the evening.

A Last Minute Decision

Initially, Chris had declined the invitation. This was because our flight home from Japan was originally not due to land until around 7pm so we would have missed the whole event. Following a change of flight time and a drunken chat with some Thai friends it turned out we could go. Actually, it turned out that we HAD to go. Apparently if one of your staff invites you to their wedding it means they truly respect you. Especially if you are Farang. And there was even a risk that Chris would have to give a speech!

So, we landed at Suvarnabhumi on Sunday evening, raced home for a quick shower and were back in the car 45 minutes later. Having made quite a last minute decision to attend, I hadn’t quite had enough time to really find out anything about the happy couple. And whilst Chris obviously knew his colleague, unfortunately, he had not found out the name of his bride to be!

The Right Wedding?

It’s very normal in Thailand to make things look very nice with very staged photographs. This wedding was no different. We made our way to the function room, guided by large, glossy photos of the bride and groom in various outfits. They looked so polished that Chris had double check that we were definitely going to the right wedding!

We understood that we had to bring money as a gift so as we arrived we quickly located the letterbox and posted our envelope. We took away some cute personalised post-it notes in return.

Before we entered the room, there was a nice place for photos so we took a quick selfie! Our milling around meant that we didn’t notice that the wedding party had actually started to enter the room! Fortunately, we managed to sneak in and lurk at the back.

Wedding selfie!
Guests of Honour?

After the couple had finished their walk to the stage, we found ourselves standing a bit awkwardly not really knowing what to do. There were tables closer to the stage but more of a buffet style set up towards the back of the room. Chris wasn’t sure if anyone else from his work would be there. He had considered asking but didn’t want to offend anyone in case they hadn’t been invited!

Before we knew it, a lady approached us and ushered us to sit down at a table. She also very quickly got us some wine! We got introduced to the other people at the table yet were still none the wiser as to who they actually were. Through our respective limited Thai and English,  we managed to discover that we were sitting with some fairly close family members. Definitely a Brother and an Aunt but we weren’t completely sure whether they were related to the bride or groom!

I talked about my embarrassment at being ‘fawned over’ as a Farang in The Helpless Farang… So I really should not have been surprised that two Farangs who turned up late and didn’t even know the bride’s name would end up on one of the main tables! And when we did eventually find the rest of Chris’ work colleagues it emerged that they didn’t even have a table and were just loitering at the back.

At the table..
The Formalities

The actual table setup was quite informal and we ‘chatted’ and helped ourselves to food. We were also regularly topped up with wine. On the stage, proceedings were more formal and there were various speeches. But it seemed Chris was not quite as important as he thought so did not get summoned to the stage to say a few words! There also seemed to be some sort of ‘Mr & Mrs’ type game but I might be wrong.

A big stage to fill…

Cutting the cake was a spectacle! It was literally the biggest cake I had ever seen. It was so big they cut it with a sword! I did later discover that the real cake was actually elsewhere and this was just a show cake. So typically Thailand!

Not even a real cake!
Dress to Impress

What was also interesting was the different outfits that people chose to wear. I’d elected to go for standard wedding attire – a nice modest dress, heels etc. Chris was of course in a suit. Some people looked similar but others were a lot more casual. This might be complete rubbish but I heard that what you wear reflects your social status. It seemed that those on the outside of the room looked a bit more casual.

Save the Best ’til Last

Overall it didn’t seem too dissimilar to a UK wedding reception. They even included the part where the bride throws the bouquet to her single friends to work out who will be next to marry. Actually, after a length set up, she just handed the bouquet to the groom who passed it to his friend who immediately proposed to his girlfriend.  Clearly, nobody was willing to take the chance of the bouquet ending up in the wrong hands! And nobody seemed to think that a marriage proposal at a wedding was in anyway attention seeking.

The one big difference and in fact the best part of the whole event was that we were not obliged to stay for any longer than absolutely necessary! At the end of the formal proceedings, we posed for a few photos and then everyone scarpered! So we followed suit and were tucked up in bed by 9:30pm. A perfect event!

 

 

 

Food, Farewells & Karaoke!

There doesn’t appear to be much sign of any Thai lessons starting through work any time soon – I really wish I’d had the thought earlier! But anyway I’ve decided to try to expand my knowledge of basic, everyday Thai phrases. I quite quickly learned the various greetings, the numbers and how to say left and right, which essentially qualifies me to get a taxi and buy things! Actually, this basic level of Thai has served me well so far, but there are a few more things I’d like to be able to say.

So this week I have learnt to tell the time in Thai. The main reason for this is that I have a daily conversation with Chaiwat, my driver, about what time we need to leave the next day, or when I need to be picked up. He’s managed to learn how to tell the time in English and actually since I’ve known him he’s definitely made an effort to learn more English words. I at least need to maintain the same equivalent level of Thai as Chaiwat’s level of English – it’s just embarrassing otherwise!

My first step was to consult the internet where there are many websites explaining the logic of telling the time in Thai. I’d already got an idea that it was not exactly straightforward from one of my colleagues who told me that 8 pm was ‘Song tum’ which actually features the number 2 and not the number 8. But I’d just thought this was some sort of colloquial thing and I shouldn’t really worry about it.

Actually, the whole thing is a bit strange and quite difficult for my poor Farang brain to understand. Instead of splitting the 24 hour period into AM and PM, in Thailand it’s split into four segments but then there are also variations within them. I won’t get into as there’s plenty of other websites where you can read how it works and also YouTube videos, which are useful to grasp the all-important tones.

But the greatest thing about trying to learn a language when you live in that country is that you can immediately put it into practice and get instant feedback about how incorrectly you’re saying the words! Chaiwat is loving my hilarious attempts at butchering the Thai language but it is working – I’ve got better as the week has gone on. This shouldn’t really come as that much of a shock to me but it is amazing how learning a language literally as you’re using it is so effective – it’s like the words go into a different part of your brain than if you’d learned them in a classroom.

The other exciting event this week was the lunch at the house of the sister of one of my colleagues. I feel like this is actually a bit of a milestone, the first invitation to a Thai house. I remember when I was on the cross-cultural management course, one of the Thai guys said it would be quite unusual for a Thai to invite a Farang to their house as they might feel embarrassed by it being messy or not that luxurious. So I was feeling pretty special actually getting the invite.

Fortunately, on the day it emerged that I wasn’t the only person invited, some of my other Thai colleagues were coming to which really took the pressure off! We set off from work at about 12:30 and obviously, the house was a million miles away so I knew I’d be lucky to return before 2 pm – lunch is always the priority in Thailand.

On the way there was concern that I was hungry, so we bought some donuts from a lady on the side of the road – I have no idea how anyone knew she was selling donuts as she just seemed to be wandering around with a few unmarked carrier bags. This did satisfy my immediate hunger pangs but was unnecessary as at that point we were only a few minutes away from the house.

The house itself was not actually what I expected although on reflection I’m not actually sure what that was. It had a large outdoor Thai kitchen area which wasn’t too dissimilar from the various places we go to eat lunch normally. I imagine that it has been run as a restaurant – it seems the sort of thing you can just do on an ad-hoc basis in Thailand. It also seemed to have some sort of beauty salon at the front of the house.

I’d felt obliged to bring a gift, I have no idea whether it’s really necessary to do this in Thailand but I just don’t feel I can turn up to anyone’s house for a meal empty-handed. I went for some posh looking English biscuits and some Earl Grey tea – I wanted to capture the British angle although there’s every chance that the family has no idea on what’s traditionally British. Anyway, it seemed to be well received.

My colleague’s sister had prepared a lovely spread including ‘Phad Kra Pao Moo’ (Thai Basil Pork) and ‘Tom Yum Goong’ (Hot and Sour Shrimp Soup). It was all delicious or ‘Aroy’ in Thai. It actually seems as though you can get by at a Thai lunch by just saying ‘Aroy Dee’ and giving a thumbs up and then throwing in an ‘Im Aroy’ at the end, which essentially means ‘I am full from eating all the delicious food’. This is my favourite Thai phrase.

Delicious home cooked food!

I also got to meet my colleague’s elderly mother whilst she was being fed her lunch. There’s not really much to tell here as we were never going to have a scintillating conversation, but she did ask whether I missed my family and also I did tell everyone about my Grandad who was actually going to turn 94 the very next day. I think I just looked like such an alien to her so she mostly just stared at me!

The week was then finished off with a farewell party for one of my direct reports who has left the company. Farewell parties seem to be quite a regular thing in Thailand – staff seem to move around quite freely. This was actually the second of my direct reports to leave which maybe I should take as feedback? Anyway, I did feel quite sad about the whole thing, this colleague had been very supportive and welcoming towards me despite us having quite different styles. He was also what I would describe as a ‘godfather’ type figure who commanded a lot of respect so it seemed like quite a sad occasion from quite a few people.

In typical Thai style, there were only 5 of us there for the first hour and that didn’t include the person who we were saying farewell to! But we tucked into the food and beer anyway. After a few Changs to loosen up my I hit the karaoke! On previous attempts, I’d been fortunate that the catalogue of English language songs was relatively limited which got me off the hook. This karaoke machine had everything and it seemed that everyone was enjoying my vocal talents so I  knocked out 6 songs without interruption!

Enjoying ourselves before anyone else arrived!
This guy actually sings like a Thai pop star!

Thankfully someone else then took over and I could resume clapping along. I got forced into a few more songs, one of my colleagues actually seemed to be well versed in many English language songs so we did a few duets. Then, with my now very hoarse voice, I initiated a session of farewell speech making. Thai people are fantastic public speakers and I always feel quite overshadowed when I listen to everyone else speak after me. It doesn’t help that hardly anyone would have understood what I said! Then our leaving colleague said his farewells and actually said a few words to everyone that was there, including me. He said I’d been a great boss which was nice to hear whether it was true or not!

Making a speech comes very naturally to Thais.

What was interesting about this Thai party compared to others was that I didn’t feel completely out of place. Previously I would have stayed for a little while to show my face but then would have politely made my exit and let everyone else get on and enjoy themselves. This time I actually only left because I was 1h30 minute drive from home and didn’t want to be too late! I definitely could have stayed longer although I’m not sure anyone wanted to hear me sing again!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Never Underestimate the Feeling of Normality

Something strange has happened to me. Well actually nothing has really happened, just something has changed, things are not quite the same.

After the novelty of the first week of working in Thailand last December, I’ve spent the last 9 months feeling quite unsatisfied by my job. Yes, I’ve enjoyed some of the new experiences and have made friends, but I’ve found that no matter how hard I’ve tried, not a lot has really progressed, or not quickly enough to notice!

I’m not exactly sure when things did change, whether it’s been happening gradually or there was a giant thunderbolt, but this week I noticed that I wasn’t counting down the hours until I could go home from work. And I wasn’t waking up in the morning desperately wishing it was the weekend. I wouldn’t say that I’ve been enjoying myself but it’s definitely felt a lot less painful. Things have actually been happening as a result of my actions!

I can’t really explain what I’ve done to make this happen. I don’t believe I’m doing anything differently but work definitely feels more productive.  I think I might have reached a point of balance between my direct, proactive, ‘type A personality’ farang style and the more relaxed ‘sabai sabai’ Thai way.  It’s not that Thai’s don’t make effort or don’t care, far from it, they just don’t seem to respond well to their farang boss springing into immediate action! There’s just a different route to the end result and maybe I’ve figured it out? I think it’s a case of not being too pushy but when you get a glimmer of enthusiasm and cooperation just grabbing it. Who knows? I just need to keep it going!

Anyway, actually making a teeny tiny difference at work is a nice feeling! Even if it is what you should normally expect from your job, you can’t underestimate how much better it is than pretty much wishing your life away trying to get through each day.

Another piece of evidence that suggests that I might have ‘made it’ in Thailand is that I have been invited to lunch at the family home of one of my team. She said her family wants to say thank you for all the support I’ve given her, although I also suspect the novelty of having the young farang lady boss round to lunch has also played a part!

It’s a very nice gesture and I’m both excited and terrified at the same time! It’s a whole new environment for me to make a complete fool of myself and commit many cultural faux pas! More on that next time!

The Helpless Farang…

We’ve been back in Thailand for just over a month now and it seems the initial post-holiday blues have subsided and we’ve settled back into the normal routine, or as normal as it can be!

Returning to Thailand after even just a very short break almost feels like starting again. There are things that I now notice that perhaps weren’t quite so obvious before, maybe I’d become desensitized?

One thing I have noticed a bit more is how Farangs are sometimes treated by Thais at work. This doesn’t happen all the time, but quite often I find that Thai colleagues go so over the top in terms of being nice to me, I can only describe it as being fawned over.

If I look back through my time so far in Thailand, I initially saw this behaviour as a way of making me feel welcome in a new and unfamiliar country. Making sure I knew where I was going, had everything I needed etc. But now nine months in, it does seem strange that I still attract this level of attention.

And in fact, it goes beyond making sure I’m ok, on occasions I actually feel like I’m being treated as a minor celebrity. Recently we had a ‘Driver Day’ at work where managers spent the day out on the road with a driver, seeing first hand what happens. Obviously, the day began with posing for many photographs, me presenting the driver with a t-shirt to mark the occasion and then doing all the vehicle checks. Then we hit the open road, fortunately, in my case, we were only going about 25km to Pattaya as my very limited Thai was not going to sustain any conversation with my driver.

Upon arrival at the delivery point, it was clear that there was going to be a bit of a wait to get unloaded, which the driver would spend in his cab. But this clearly wasn’t good enough for the Farang! I was led into an air-conditioned office, found a chair and brought a chilled bottle of water.

I do actually take issue with the assumption that I must be constantly cooled down with air conditioning, it’s as if they think something very bad might happen to me if I’m not kept at a constant 23 degrees Celsius. But most of the time I find being blasted with cold air quite unpleasant and get chilly!

And then there’s lunch! If I’m a bit busy and lunch is a bit of a hassle to obtain, I’m quite happy not to bother. Well, I’m not happy, but I know nothing bad will happen if I miss one meal. This is an alien concept to Thai people so cue frantic phone calls inquiring as to whether I’ve had lunch, and the driver being despatched on a random motorcycle to find me some food.

Although I’m not actually helpless in daily life, I can’t really protest for fear of insulting people so I just lap it up!

This particular day was a bit of a special case and it isn’t normally as awkward as that, but I do wonder whether I could deal with these situations a bit better if I was able to communicate more effectively in Thai.

When I arrived in Thailand, I was quite strongly advised that learning Thai was not necessary, and a waste of time as it was too difficult to attain any sort of useful proficiency. I was actually told that as soon as I showed any signs of understanding Thai, it would be assumed that I understood everything so nobody would speak English and I would then have no idea what was going on.

As I mentioned before, in my daily working life there are few English speakers, so knowing even a bit of Thai would help me a lot. And then the apparent impossibility of becoming barely competent in the Thai language seems to be complete nonsense. I’ve recently met quite a few Farangs who are able to speak Thai. They’re probably not perfect, but they make themselves understood effectively and can understand what others are saying. And in fact, at work, I can understand quite a lot already, mainly because there is so much industry jargon that happens to be the same in English and Thai and I can sort of piece it together.

And thinking about it, why would I think it’s acceptable to live in a country and not make a real attempt to learn the language – and I mean doing more than ordering a drink and haggling with a tuk-tuk driver. We don’t think it’s acceptable in the UK, we accuse people of not integrating. So why do I think it’s ok to live here and expect other people to order my lunch for me?

So I’m going to do it, I’m going to learn Thai! Well, I’m going to take some lessons and embrace the fact that I live in Thailand so can practice every day.

 

 

 

The Cross-Cultural Challenge – Part 3

The cross-cultural management course is now a distant memory, other than recently having been emailed a copy of the horrendously awkward group photo that was taken on the last day. Capturing magical moments like this in Thailand is part and parcel of daily life, although I still have no idea whatever happens to these photos as they never normally seem to appear again.

The on-going challenge of putting what I learned on the course into practice goes on. It has occurred to me recently, partly through my own experience and partly through reading frustrated accounts of other expats in Thailand, that my approach to life here might be slightly flawed.

I’ve always been a strong believer that when you’re in a foreign country, you should do what you can to ‘fit in’. I’m not talking about a complete change in behaviour but just some slight modifications to be polite and respectful, such as trying to speak a bit of the language, enthusiastically trying the food and not immediately seeking out a gang of fellow English people to drink tea/lager with. I studied in France for a year and whilst I wouldn’t say I was a fully integrated member of French society, I did have some French friends, played for a French rugby team and didn’t really feel that being a foreigner was that much of ‘a thing’.

When we first came to Thailand, I was determined not to immediately seek out a load of Expats with whom I could form a nice little protective bubble to keep me safe. As our accommodation selection was based almost exclusively on the happiness and well-being of our two dogs, we didn’t end up living in Sukhumvit, the centre of the Thailand expat world. We’re not a million miles away but our Soi definitely has a more ‘local’ vibe. I actually suspect some of neighbours never actually leave the Soi but why would you? There seems to be no end of vans, motorcycles and old ladies on push bikes selling fresh vegetables and meat, rice, and even handbags and flipflops right outside. There’s even an ice cream man who, if you inadvertently make eye contact with as he passes, will slowly reverse back and give you a sinister look until you buy one of his ice creams.

On this basis, I thought that we would be a different breed of Expat, with a much deeper appreciation of the local culture and more integrated and accepted by our neighbours. And on some level, we have achieved this. As we are creatures of habit, and as owning dogs requires a certain amount of routine, we tend to see the same people every day. We’re now on friendly terms with many security Guards, men with whistles, café owners and motorcycle taxi men. I think the dogs are a big draw as Thai’s seem to show an equal amount of terror and fascination towards them.

Whilst this is all absolutely lovely, I think this is probably as far as it really goes. Even with work colleagues, socialising will always be on a fairly superficial level. Chris and I have attended various ‘outings’, karaoke parties, bowling and general events through work, and whilst there’s never a point where people are outright ignoring you or being rude, you never feel like you quite belong.

The reality seems to be that Thai’s expect little more of a ‘Farang’ than to show their face, sing a couple of karaoke songs and then politely make their excuses and leave. I’ve always thought that my Thai colleagues might be offended if I immediately gravitate towards the nearest other ‘Farang’ at a party, but I actually think they prefer it. The other day I was at a work conference and when I’d got my lunch from the buffet, I fought the urge to find the ‘Farang’ table and sat with some Thai colleagues. I was made to feel welcome but I’m certain they would have been happier if I’d not been there!

It’s a strange concept to get your head around. It’s easy to feel offended, especially being labelled as ‘Farang’ which seems like such a harsh word! But in Thai society, ‘Farangs’ are not seen as being at the bottom of the hierarchy, they’re not even in it! We sit somewhere near the Civil Servants in terms of level but definitely on the outside! I don’t think it’s the same as xenophobia, it’s just a view of the world that is incomprehensible to anyone other than a Thai!

So, going forward I shall be switching my Khao Man Gai and Bag of Fanta, in favour of a Full English and a pint of Carling down the English pub! And I won’t be worrying that I’m not ‘fitting in’.

The Cross-Cultural Challenge – Part 2

Having now completed the Cross-Cultural Management course, and being presented with a certificate to prove this,  I am now obviously totally proficient expat manager in Thailand. I no longer make cataclysmic errors in how I talk to people that result in blank stares and a wall of silence, and I have been able to influence my team’s thinking so that they anticipate issues and plan! Well maybe not, but the course did throw up a few interesting points.

After an intense, yet relatively productive two days at work, it was nice to have a change of scenery in the form of a swanky central Bangkok hotel, endless coffee and a seemingly never-ending array of deliciously tempting food.

I felt quite nervous about the course, slightly afraid of how I might uncover previously unregistered, heinous crimes against Thai culture and feel truly mortified. But I was also excited to gain some knowledge and hopefully some useful techniques to make me a whole lot more effective in my job.

The title of the course being ‘Cross-Cultural Management’, it was aimed at both expatriate managers working in Thailand, and Thai managers working for multinational companies. There are many multinational companies in Bangkok who may choose to roll out concepts and initiatives derived from the West, and may also post Western managers in Thailand, so it makes sense to prepare the Thai managers for this. Also, the typical ‘old school’ Thai way of doing things isn’t seen as particularly prosperous, especially outside of Thailand so expats can add value.

There were two Thais on the course and ten expats, although one of the expats was, in fact, Japanese so cannot be counted as ‘farang’ – they actually sit somewhere else in the overall hierarchy of Thai society. I imagine this wasn’t exactly the mix of expatriates and Thais that the organisers were going for, but better than no Thais at all.

On the first day, it seemed that the facilitators were trying to foster an open environment, with lots of sharing and discussion. By the second day, it was quite clear that they were pretty fed up with everyone talking about all the funerals and ‘make merit’ ceremonies they’d had to take part in, and the endless questions about why Thai people do not want to discuss politics. They really just wanted us to shut up and listen to why Thai culture is so different and difficult to truly adjust to. This, unfortunately, did make the second day a little strained, but overall it was a worthwhile two days.

If anything, sharing experiences with other expats was useful. I don’t mean chatting about whichever Thai lady some farang bloke befriended down Nana Plaza, more talking about professional challenges in the workplace. I’m sure other expats in other countries will recognise this, but it’s very easy to connect with people who are in a similar situation as you just have so much in common. I’m not sure what happens when you exhaust all the discussion on working and living in a different country, maybe you never do!

I think there were three key points that I really took away from the course and feel I can apply in my working life. The first, and it’s quite shocking that I hadn’t really grasped this in 6 months, was the correct use of the ‘wai’. This is the gesture where you bring your hands together and bow your head slightly, used to greet people and say thank you. Now, I’d learnt that it’s not always necessary to do this, particularly in restaurants and shops a polite nod is fine. What I hadn’t realised was that as the more senior person in a lot of work situations, I really shouldn’t be initiating a ‘wai’. I should wait for the more junior person to do it and then respond. I don’t think any real harm has been done but I am potentially not showing my seniority which may result in a lack of respect. This might explain why nobody does anything I say!

The second point was more of an understanding of some of the differences in the Thai language. Although there are equivalent words, they don’t always mean exactly the same thing, and because you can’t use different tones in the same way, you can’t get the meaning across even if you’re speaking English. The most useful example of this for me was the word ‘why’. There is a Thai equivalent of ‘why’, but it always has a very negative connotation. So, when I’m patiently enquiring into ‘why’ my team have done something (or not), I might as well be saying ‘You’ve clearly done something wrong and I do not trust you in the slightest’. I am incredibly guilty of overuse of the word ‘why’, in large meetings and as a prefix to many questions, one after another. In my mind, I am simply trying to understand the issue so I can support the solution, but to my Thai colleagues, I am just accusing them of doing a bad job. The more effective way of getting a response in this scenario would be to say something like ‘can you help me understand this problem?’.

The third and final point was gaining a deeper understanding of why Thai people behave like this, even when they know they are probably causing frustration to their expat managers, and not really getting the job done effectively. The pre-reading for the course alluded to this, but essentially Thailand has been so recently and rapidly industrialised that they just haven’t had time for their culture and mindset to adjust. In the West, we’ve had hundreds of years for society to adjust to these changes but in Thailand, it’s been less than one hundred years. I am probably over-simplifying it, but essentially deep down everyone is still an agricultural worker where their lives are ultimately quite simple, and things like being on time, for instance, are just not important.

This is a difficult concept for western expats to comprehend. I tried explaining it to some friends in the pub on Friday night and the immediate question is ‘if they know they’re doing it, why don’t they just change?’ Unfortunately, it’s just not simple.

The Cross-Cultural Challenge – Part 1

Now that I’ve been here for 6 months, work has decided to send me on a two-day cross-cultural management course to learn how to work with Thais. Fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough not to have to interact with many Thais on a regular basis, so haven’t needed any guidance on this up to now…oh wait!

By all accounts, it is better to have spent some time here before you attend this type of course so you have some real-life examples that you can reflect on. As I’ve been left to flail around, committing social faux-pas and offending people for several months, I have a lot of examples that I hope will be given some context. Hopefully I will feel completely enlightened by the whole experience and return to work as an effective expatriate manager, however, I fear it might be slightly more complicated than that.

We’ve been issued with some pre-reading ahead of the course, and it appears the cultural differences run a lot deeper than I’d originally thought. The aim of the course is to build an understanding of why certain approaches that I might take in a western business environment, fall completely flat in Thailand.

There are obvious things that you comprehend quickly when you live and work here, like the influence of age and seniority in social and professional situations, never to touch someone’s head, and never to point your feet at someone, particularly a monk or a Buddha image.

Despite knowing all of this I have recently committed such a flagrant breach of one of these rules, I can barely bring myself to write about it. I actually tapped someone else’s foot with my own! I cannot believe I did it! The reason was well meant – they were not wearing safety shoes in the warehouse and I was trying to tell them in an informal way. My brain just completely deserted me momentarily. I am hoping there was no real harm done but who knows?

One of the articles in the pre-reading selection discusses the differences between how Thais and Americans raise their children. It was written from a Thai perspective and possibly quite harshly likens the way Americans care for a child to a caged bird! It’s all about how American children are encouraged to be more dependent on objects like toys at an early age to be able to cope with life in an industrialised society where life really does depend on material possessions. In Thailand, children stay with their parents all the time, sleeping in the same room as them, on a cushion or hammock so they can be moved around. They are brought up to love their parents and not toys. The point of the article isn’t to say what’s right and wrong, it’s really to try to explain how the different values are established from the moment you’re born.

I told my Thai colleagues that I was going on the course and they said that the culture is changing – there is an old, more conservative Thai culture and a new Thai culture. I never really found out what that really meant as I made a joke about how one of our group must be ‘old Thai’ and the conversation descended into a game of guess how old I am.

One quite noticeable and amusing difference in behaviour in Thailand is that it’s perfectly acceptable to make fun of people directly to their face for being fat, old, spotty, you name it! I did ask one of my colleagues about this and he said it was fine – he said people mocked him for his dark skin! I chose not to explain that this wasn’t quite the same thing.

I had to submit two questions in advance of the course that would hopefully be answered at some during the two days. My first question was:

How do I create a sense of urgency with my Thai team so they start planning ahead, anticipating issues and not leaving everything to the last minute?

I am a planner at heart, I like to prepare so there are no surprises. This is quite a useful trait in my line of work, but it seems that I am the only person in my whole team who takes this approach! I asked one of my direct reports to prepare a plan for a particularly busy period of work. To help him out I listed all the potential things that could go wrong and suggested he think through some actions to overcome each one. I thought this was a logical approach.

The immediate suggested action was that we needed to buy some food to offer to the ghost that lives in the office to stop the bad things happening. I’m not sure if it would be acceptable for me to add this to a ‘robust action plan’ but I did start thinking that a disproportionate number of bad things have happened at work recently and maybe this wasn’t a bad idea. Anyway, GMP rules mean this is a non-starter as we can’t have any food in the workplace, but I will endeavour to try to appease the ghost in some other way.

My second question was (and this is probably linked to the first question):

Why don’t Thai’s ever seem to want to go home from work?

Genuinely I have never seen people spend so many hours at work! They’re not necessarily getting any more done in that time, but they don’t seem to have any real desire to go home. I find this particularly strange on a Friday night when I am gagging to get out of there and to the pub, but everyone continues to work.

Maybe next time I will have the answers to these questions and have some idea of what I’m supposed to be doing!

Misery, Monsoons and Karaoke!

The past week has been tough, probably the toughest week we’ve had so far in our 6 months in Thailand. It’s been the sort of week when I’ve questioned why we’re even here when we could be this miserable anywhere in the World! But somehow, and I don’t really know how we’ve survived to do it all over again.

On reflection, I’m probably being somewhat dramatic as nothing really that bad has happened, we’ve both just been very busy and under a lot of pressure at work which hasn’t left much time for anything else. This is no different to what anyone else who has a job is facing, but for me, it feels like such a waste of our time here if we just follow the work, eat, sleep, repeat routine.

I feel like we’re incredibly fortunate to have this opportunity to live in such a weird and wonderful country, I just don’t want to waste it. I think it’s like the ‘fear of missing out’, or ‘FOMO’, a term that younger, cooler people might use. You believe that everyone is out there having these amazing experiences and you’re just living a really mundane existence. Then you spend time fretting about this and it just adds to the misery! The fact is that we’re not on an extended vacation in Thailand, the lifestyle is excellent for the most part, there will just be sometimes when we have to work a bit harder to maintain that lifestyle.

This week I have also experienced a few pangs of homesickness, possibly linked to the above or maybe just a coincidence. I started listening to a few UK podcasts, nothing particularly deep and meaningful, but just nicely familiar. I also wrote the Wasps fan blog in the Coventry Telegraph this week, which brought back lots of great memories. It’s strange to feel like this after 6 months but I think because our lives have changed so dramatically, it isn’t natural to think that much about how things were before. It’s like if things had only changed a little bit, I’d think about the UK more often, but because things are so different, I’ve just completely separated the old life from this new one.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom this week though! I ate lunch in the middle of what I would describe as a monsoon, but Thai people think is just a normal rain shower. Where we’d chosen for lunch was the typical outside but covered restaurant, normally offering sufficient protection from the elements. But it was raining so hard, that a fine spray was invading the normally sheltered area and soaking everything. Various electrical items were quickly gathered up, but not clearly not quick enough to prevent a power cut. But nothing gets in the way of lunch in Thailand so after rearranging all the tables and chairs and a quick wipe down, we ate a delicious feast, albeit in semi-darkness as the power did not return.

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A light monsoon will never get in the way of lunch!

 

I also experienced my first Thai karaoke party. I have previously observed that Thai people need little reason for a party; they also need absolutely zero encouragement to have a good old singalong! I am quite a big fan of karaoke myself, having dazzled audiences with my rendition of Barry Manilow’s ‘Copacabana’ on many occasions. You’d normally expect people to need a bit of time to build up their courage before their first song and to maybe be a little tentative initially. This is not the case in Thailand, you go from zero to everyone dancing and singing in a matter of minutes.

 

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What can I say? The music took control!

 

And they all know all the words to every song! As the only Farang there, they were desperate to find songs with English lyrics for me to tackle, but the selection was limited, to say the least. Even though I listen to music regularly and don’t shy away from singing along in the privacy of my own shower, trying to perform a karaoke version of Ed Sheeran’s ‘Perfect’ when the backing track doesn’t give you many clues was nigh on impossible. It didn’t really matter though – I think it was the taking part that counted, or at least I hope that was the case. The only song that I did pretty well on was Jesse Jay’s ‘Price Tag’, and I even threw in some dance moves, which I will probably live to regret. And obviously, everyone captured these moments on video so I imagine I will get to relive the whole experience when I least expect it.