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Home > New Posting > Cultural Etiquette

The People

Thais are tolerant of individualism, but find comfort and security in being part of a group. Mai Pen Rai (never mind) is the Thai expression which characterizes the general focus of life - "it is to enjoy." Thais are productive and hard working while at the same time happy with what they are and what they have materially. They are smiling, pleasant, humble and patient people who laugh easily, speak softly, are slow to anger, and never try to cause anyone to lose face. Thais are very proud of their cultural heritage and enjoy talking about it with visitors. Thais are proud that they have never been ruled by a Western power.

Meeting and Greeting

  • When being introduced or greeting someone, men say Sawatdee-krap and women say Sawatdee-kah.
  • Thais greet each other with a "wai." Foreigners are not expected to initiate the wai gesture, but it is an insult not to return the wai. If a wai is not offered to you, shake hands with men and smile and nod to women. A Thai businessperson may shake hands with a foreigner. Offer a wai only to a person of equal or greater status. Subordinates should offer a wai first.
  • Wai (why) - a person places the palm of his or her hands together, with their fingers extended at chest level close to their body and bows slightly. The higher the hands are placed, the more respect is shown. Subordinates might raise their fingers as high as their nose. However, the tips of their fingers should never be above eye level.
  • A wai can mean "Hello," "Thank you," "I'm sorry," or "Goodbye." A wai is not used to greet children, servants, street vendors or laborers. Never return a wai to a child, waiter, clerk, etc. Simply nod and smile in response.
  • Monks do not return a wai.
  • Thais say "Where are you going" rather than "Hello." A polite response is "Just down the street."
  • Introductions are common only in a formal situation. Introduce yourself by your first name. Feel free to introduce yourself or ask for someone's name. When introducing your business partner to an important Thai, mention your partner's name first.
  • The inferior or lower-status person is always addressed first in an introduction. Thus, a child is introduced before its parents, a secretary is introduced before her boss.

Names and Titles

  • Thais address one another by first names and titles and reserve last names for very formal occasions and written communications. Last names have been used in Thailand for only the past fifty years and are difficult even for Thais to pronounce. Two people with the same last name are almost certainly related.
  • Foreigners are often addressed by their given names because it is easier for Thais; it does not imply familiarity. Thais will probably call you Mr. Joe or Mrs. Mary.
  • Titles, rank and honor are very important. Introductions require only the given name and title. Mr., Mrs., or Miss + family name are appropriate for visitors to use in formal situations.
  • Thai given names are preceded by Khun (Mr. Mrs. or Miss), unless they carry a higher degree, such as doctor. Khun is used for men and women, married or single. If you don't know a person's name, address them as Khun. Example: Anuwat (Given) + Wattapongsiri (Family) is Khun Anuwat.
  • Correspondence: Use Dear + Khun + given name. Example: Dear Khun Mary.
  • Nicknames are common in Thailand

Corporate Culture

  • Thailand has a pro-business attitude. Business decisions are slow. Decisions pass through many levels before being decided upon. Planning is short-term. Top management is often family. Who you know is important. Powerful connections are respected.
  • First meetings generally produce good humor, many smiles, polite conversation and few results. The second meeting should include a meal invitation. Meetings begin with small talk. Discussing business before becoming acquainted is impolite. Degrees, especially from prestigious universities, bring status. Thais may list these on their business card. Thais respect foreigners with powerful connections.
  • Negotiations may be lengthy. Process takes precedence over content. Slow information flow may delay discussions and decisions.
  • Thais prefer to work later in the evening rather than early in the morning. Business is kept separate from work. Family comes first before business.
  • Frankness is not appreciated. Be subtle in responding with a negative reply.

Body Language

  • Touching between people of the same sex is more common in Thailand than in many other Asian countries. However, touching someone of the opposite sex is taboo. Do not show affection in public.
  • Never touch or pass anything over anyone's head. The head is considered sacred in Thailand and must be respected.
  • Never point your feet at anyone or use your feet to move anything or touch anyone. Feet are regarded as unclean and symbolically (as well as physically) the lowest part of the body.
  • Do not put your hands in your pockets while talking to someone. Never put your arm over the back of the chair in which someone is sitting.
  • A smile is often used for many different emotions. It may be an apology, a thank-you, a greeting, or to show embarrassment. Be aware: A Thai's smiling assurance does not mean you will in fact get what you want, when you want it. It simply reflects the Thai appreciation of harmony and their "never mind" attitude.
  • Don't wave your hands about as you talk, giving Thais the impression that you are angry. Never pass anything with your left hand. Never point with your hand and never, never with one finger.
  • Do not cross your legs in the presence of the elderly or monks.
  • To beckon someone, extend your arm with the palm of your hand down and flutter your fingers up and down.

Dining and Entertainment

  • To attract a waiter, wave quietly with your palm down or say "Nong" (brother or sister). Never snap your fingers or raise your voice to attract a waiter.
  • Thai food is eaten with a fork and a tablespoon rather than with chopsticks. The spoon is held in the right hand and the bottom of the fork pushes the food into the spoon.
  • All Western hotels serve Western and continental cuisine for all meals.
  • Never drink tap water unless it is boiled. Avoid eating salads that haven't been washed in purified water. Always peel fruit before eating.
  • Many Thai dishes are hot and spicy with herbs, lemon grass, and coriander, but most are not especially aggressive. Food is always sweet, sour, hot, salty or spicy never bland. Each region has its own specialties.
  • Food may be transferred to your rice bowl, where it can be mixed with rice. Rice is eaten with almost every meal.
  • Leave a small amount of food on your plate when you have finished eating, to show you are full. Place your spoon and fork on your plate at the 5:25 position to indicate you are finished eating.
  • The host pays the bill. Never offer to split a bill in a restaurant.


  • Thai society is divided into upper and lower classes. At formal occasions, dress is expected to match one's social station. Appearance is very important. Wealth is greatly admired. High-status Thais often overdress, especially considering the hot climate.
  • Western clothing is very common. Modest clothing is recommended. General dress is informal but always neat and clean. Clothing should be stylish and cool.
  • For Businessmen: Pants and shirts (white or colored) with or without a tie. A light suit or jacket adds status. In the evening, dark business suits or formal traditional Thai shirts are worn. Senior executives wear light weight suits to work.
  • For Businesswomen: Conservative dresses or skirts and blouses (not sleeveless). Simple blouses and calf-length loose pants and long wrap-around or tube skirts are common.


  • Gift giving in Thailand is Westernized with less formality than elsewhere in Asia.
  • Bring a small gift for anyone who works for you regularly. Items such as books, special food items and pens are appropriate.
  • Give a gift with your right hand and receive a gift with your right hand. You should also offer a wai.
  • Do not open a gift you've been given unless invited to do so. Thais generally do not open a gift in front of the giver.
  • For the hostess give: Fruit, flowers, cakes, brandy/liquors, candy.
  • In business, give Brandy, liquors, American crafts, books and desk attire are appropriate gifts.

Helpful Hints

  • Show great respect for the royal family. They are highly respected by most Thais. Stand in respect when the Thai national anthem is played.
  • Step over the threshold, not on it, when going through a doorway. Thais believe a spirit resides in the threshold.
  • Take off your shoes before entering a home, wat or building which has a Buddha image within.
  • Use your right hand only for passing, eating, touching, etc.
  • Never touch the head of a Thai or pass an object over it; the head is considered sacred in Thailand.
  • Do not speak in a loud voice. Do not show your temper. Never criticize anyone publicly.

Especially for Women

  • Men conduct most business. However, many traditional sex-barriers are disappearing. More and more women are holding executive positions in the workforce.
  • Ladies may not enter a bot, the restricted area of a wat (temple). Never touch a monk, hand him anything or sit next to or higher than him. When visiting a mosque, cover your body. Wear slacks, a long skirt, a long sleeved blouse with a buttoned neck, and a headscarf.
  • Traditional Thais believe a woman can lose face if a man touches her in public.
Adapted from material compiled by Window on the World, a cross-cultural training and consulting firm. Originally based on material contained in the "Put Your Best Foot Forward" series of books by Mary Murray Bosrock.
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