As the socially superior individual in many situations, you’ll have certain responsibilities when you visit Thailand. And by the way, don’t forget that you’ll sometimes also be inferior.
Be ready for contradictions and ambiguity in Thailand. Money and age contribute to social status — but young monks with no possessions outrank old millionaires.
A western visitor to Thailand is often cast into the role of the social superior. Some Americans get right into this! For most, the notion is uncomfortable. What about the Declaration of Independence, after all?
They don’t have a Declaration of Independence in Thailand. (Nor a Bill of Rights, for that matter: It’s illegal to criticize the royalty, or any religion.) While Thai culture has shifted somewhat westward, age-old distinctions of class and social rank still prevail.
Royalty and monks always rank highest. Several other factors then determine a person’s social status:
Occupation and education.
Age. (Older, for Americans who might have been wondering, is better!)
Family. (Family names were not adopted in Thailand until the 1920s, when each family took a unique name. Thus certain family names reliably denote high status.)
A new acquaintance may pepper you with questions that seem snoopy. They are! But without knowing your relative social ranking, a Thai has as much difficulty interacting with you, as you would with someone whose name or gender you didn’t know. Indeed, the Thai language offers ten ways of saying the word you, and the choice depends in part on the relative status of the listener.
So be ready to answer questions like “How old are you?”; “What hotel do you stay at?” and “How much did your shirt cost?” Many Americans will draw the line at “How much money do you make?” and a light-hearted “Not enough” should suffice. That you could afford a trip to Thailand establishes that your income lies well above that of most people you’ll meet.
A new acquaintance will also evaluate your dress, grooming, and mannerisms, for further clues about where to place you.
In some situations, such as interactions with a waiter in a bar or restaurant, the context has already established you as having the higher social rank. Status-related questions here are simply a way to flatter you. You may as well play along and enjoy it!
When you’re the superior
You incur certain responsibilities as the higher-ranking individual.
You pick up the tab at dinner, whether it’s a date or a group of business colleagues; don’t expect to split the bill.
Dress your role. That tank-top you wore to the beach is not appropriate anywhere else.
Don’t shirk your position. At a public event, for example, you may be ushered to a front row. Stay there. If you move back, everyone behind you will also feel obliged to move back.
Be courteous to those of lower status. Your higher ranking is never an excuse to criticize or show anger toward someone of a lower status; doing so will reflect more badly on you than on them.
But don’t overdo it. A smile is more appropriate than a spoken thank-you to a clerk, cab-driver, or doorman, after they perform an expected service.
When you’re the inferior
Don’t get too smug just yet. You rank above many Thai people, but you always rank below monks and royalty. Follow the lead of others in the presence of either group, bow your head, and by no means point at them with your feet or touch them on the head!