One of the many differences in culture between the west and Thailand is that Thai’s are taught to never question authority.  This applies to anything and everything.  There are both advantages and disadvantages to this mindset and I’ll talk about a few examples:

 

One of the many differences in culture between the west and Thailand is that Thai’s are taught to never question authority.  This applies to anything and everything.  There are both advantages and disadvantages to this mindset and I’ll talk about a few examples:

 

Perhaps the major disadvantage is that Thai’s never learn the necessary social and analytical skills for calm, rational, and reasoned resistance.  The ability to rationally and effectively present your position is the hallmark of citizens of civilized countries.  Thai’s generally are very ‘obedient’ and ‘unquestioning’ of authority or even general harassment. 

But push them too far and instead of being able to stand up for themselves in a controlled manner, their pent up rage explodes into violence as evidenced by the ‘piling-on’ of many Thai’s on one farang in a fight, taking over the airport, violent political gatherings, and the all too common need to get drunk to reach this state and express their emotions.  Once intoxicated they become completely unpredictable and dangerous.  Thai’s often consider intoxication as an excuse for almost anything, from beating the wife to murder. 

In the classroom Thai’s are taught to never question the teacher, doing so could earn them a paddling and other disciplinary actions.  In one respect this ‘forced’ respect and rote acceptance of the teachers authority might appear to solve many of the  problems in western classrooms.  Perhaps, but only if the teacher was always right and always conducted themselves with fairness and virtue. 

In reality what it does is allow the teacher to not worry about the correctness of their lessons because they’ll never be questioned, which of course hurts everyone in the class.  And it also allows teachers to get away with all types of abuse from verbally and sexually abusing students, to gross incompetence.  You’d think not many would go this far, but in a culture where they have unquestioned authority I suspect many do.  And of course it stifles independence, intellectual curiosity, and innovation.

 

Another example would be doctors and other medical personal including questionably trained pharmacists whose primary motivation is the sale of product.  Doctors generally think it’s a waste of time to explain procedures and diagnoses with the patient, especially if there might be alternative treatments other than what is easiest or most profitable to them.  Basically they’ve taken the individuals medical decisions from them.

 

Another example would be doctors and other medical personal including questionably trained pharmacists whose primary motivation is the sale of product.  Doctors generally think it’s a waste of time to explain procedures and diagnoses with the patient, especially if there might be alternative treatments other than what is easiest or most profitable to them.  Basically they’ve taken the individuals medical decisions from them.

Many would say when you consider the general education of the Thai population, it’s a good thing a ‘learned’ doctor is making these decisions for them.  Again, if the doctor is motivated by the right things and has detailed knowledge of the patient perhaps this is true.  But in practice the damage they cause is severe.

Some examples:

A Thai lady I knew had a toothache and went to see the dentist on her soi.  30 minutes later she came back with no tooth and 300 baht lighter.  She told me the dentist didn’t explain what was wrong with her tooth or discuss alternative treatments.  This being my first year in Thailand I found this unbelievable so with the help of another friend to translate I went to talk with the dentist. 

 

He didn’t take an x-ray, he told us the patient probably couldn’t afford an x-ray.  He “thought” something was wrong because she had pain, and because he didn’t want to be late for a lunch appointment he simply pulled the tooth.  And with a totally open look on his face said “besides, no one on this soi has money for fillings or root canals”, two alternatives I’d just mentioned.  If you think this is an isolated case ask the next Thai you see with missing teeth.  I did, and each one related a similar story.

 

He didn’t take an x-ray, he told us the patient probably couldn’t afford an x-ray.  He “thought” something was wrong because she had pain, and because he didn’t want to be late for a lunch appointment he simply pulled the tooth.  And with a totally open look on his face said “besides, no one on this soi has money for fillings or root canals”, two alternatives I’d just mentioned.  If you think this is an isolated case ask the next Thai you see with missing teeth.  I did, and each one related a similar story.

Another young Thai lady I know was given a complete hysterectomy at age 17 when she complained about pain and heavy bleeding.  The resulting scar was horrific.  No tests were done.  This is a procedure which is often performed vaginally (no scars) or with three small scars (laparoscopy) by a competent doctor.  But to save time and cost costs it’s most often done in Thailand (to poor patients) with a full length incision.  The patient isn’t consulted about these choices.  A doctor considers it an insult to explain their recommendations to the patient, and a complete waste of time.  I’ve been told by several Thai doctors, the most difficult adjustment they face when working in the hospitals that treat westerners is being willing to answer their questions and explain alternative treatments.  They truly consider themselves above explanation to the ‘little people’.

Another and the last area I’ll discuss is customer service.  I’ve regularly had university educated adult Thai assistants during every year I’ve spent in Thailand.  When breaking in a new assistant, the single most difficult adjustment they face is learning how to question customer service personnel on my behalf.  The good news is that once they do this enough, it’s almost like creating a monster.  Their confidence grows by leaps and bounds.

The first time this happened I had just purchased a mobile phone at Makro.  I hadn’t left the counter yet, hadn’t even touched the bag with the phone in it, when a new model was brought out to take the place of the one I just purchased and I told them I wanted that one.  I was willing to pay the difference.  They refused.  The clerk told me there was no ‘returns’, and if the phone was defective the warranty center would take care of me. 

 

The first time this happened I had just purchased a mobile phone at Makro.  I hadn’t left the counter yet, hadn’t even touched the bag with the phone in it, when a new model was brought out to take the place of the one I just purchased and I told them I wanted that one.  I was willing to pay the difference.  They refused.  The clerk told me there was no ‘returns’, and if the phone was defective the warranty center would take care of me.

 

I will say the availability and ease of use of warranty centers for most products is excellent in Thailand.  Much better than the west where you generally send the item off in the mail or via UPS and then wait weeks for repair or replacement.  Still, I hadn’t even touched this item.  It didn’t seem right to me.  To my assistants horror I slightly raised my voice with the clerk and demanded to change phones.  I was arguing.  I noticed my assistant had turned red and was looking at the floor.  I was embarrassing her by standing up for myself!

In the end, after speaking with two managers, I left the store with the desired phone.  My assistant seemed in a very dark mood.  I questioned her mood and she told me nothing was wrong.  After all, culturally you don’t question the boss.  After much prompting and a threat of dismissal you opened up and told me it was very embarrassing for her and in fact my slightly raised voice ‘terrified’ her.  What a lesson.   The good news is that within 4-5 months SHE was demanding her rights on my behalf, and on her own.  The better news is she used this new confidence to greatly approve her life.  She’s now living in France, earning her graduate degree (in France) and married to a doctor her own age.  Every subsequent assistant went through an almost identical process.

As unbelievable as it might seem to you and I, even a clerk at a market is considered to be in a position of authority.  Once they put on that uniform or name badge, they expect to be taken at their word and obeyed.  From the lowest rent-a-cop security guards, to the call center clerks at the power company, to poorly trained immigration officials.

 

As unbelievable as it might seem to you and I, even a clerk at a market is considered to be in a position of authority.  Once they put on that uniform or name badge, they expect to be taken at their word and obeyed.  From the lowest rent-a-cop security guards, to the call center clerks at the power company, to poorly trained immigration officials.

 

Another example.  Recently we received a notice a phone bill was delinquent.  I checked my online banking and noticed I paid the bill.  My wife called TOT and when finished had  a list of “instructions” from the clerk.   She was told to go to the bank and collect a certified copy of the transaction, and then go to TOT in person, take a number, and wait to be seen. This was only to turn in the paperwork.  She was told they’d let her know what else was needed within two weeks.  I asked her to call them back and ask what information on the copy of the transaction they needed to find out payment.  She was told they don’t do business that way, their procedure must be followed.  

Three supervisors later we learned all they really needed was the code assigned to the transaction by the bank.  They could then compare that to their computer and find the payment and learn why it wasn’t credited to my account.  It took me 60 seconds to get this code from my online banking account, and over an hour to go through the supervisors before they’d accept the code from me and not a certified document.  Same code, but they weren’t used to handling this over the phone.  I figure it saved my wife 4-5 hours of time and several hundred baht of taxi fees by not having to follow their ‘routine’.

Without exaggerating I could provide over 50 such examples of this sort of stuff off the top of my head from the last few months alone.  It’s very rare a procedure or clerk is questioned.  Everyone just does what they’re told.  Without fail, a first line clerk will have no experience with any procedure other than what they first tell you.

 

Thailand is often a strange place to westerners when such cultural differences manifest themselves into a ‘situation’.  From minimum wage rent-a-cops demanding to be obeyed, to doctors you’re paying resenting any type of explanation, to any sort of customer service staff being totally unprepared and unwilling to step outside their normal procedure.

 

Thailand is often a strange place to westerners when such cultural differences manifest themselves into a ‘situation’.  From minimum wage rent-a-cops demanding to be obeyed, to doctors you’re paying resenting any type of explanation, to any sort of customer service staff being totally unprepared and unwilling to step outside their normal procedure.

 

The way I look at it, a countries citizens deserve what they get in these areas.  If they aren’t willing to stand up for themselves then they must be willing to accept the consequences.  As a westerner, I find it totally unacceptable and I won’t tolerate such behavior, nor will I allow my staff to tolerate it in my behalf.  It is the consumers responsibility to speak out and make their voice heard.  Speak Out!

 

The way I look at it, a countries citizens deserve what they get in these areas.  If they aren’t willing to stand up for themselves then they must be willing to accept the consequences.  As a westerner, I find it totally unacceptable and I won’t tolerate such behavior, nor will I allow my staff to tolerate it in my behalf.  It is the consumers responsibility to speak out and make their voice heard.  Speak Out!

Until next time..