14 Ways to Get On With Your Thai Colleagues at School

23:23 Amy 5 Comments

Want to make friends with your Thai teacher colleagues?

I wrote this post to help people, especially ESL & TEFL teachers, get along with their Thai colleagues. Read these tips to smooth the way into making meaningful, lasting relationships and friendships.

I love working with my Thai colleagues, learning from them and forming friendships. Sadly, problems sometimes arise that are usually the result of a clash of cultures which could have easily been avoided. Don't panic though - Thai people are very forgiving of cultural mistakes, so simply being nice and using common sense should be enough to get along with everyone.

Before you read this, I should tell you that I’m no expert on Thai culture or Thai people. In fact, many people claim that farang people could never understand Thainess. But, Andy and I have been here for a year now and this is what we've learned. We've been lucky to have some great Thai and farang colleagues tell us some of these things, and we've figured some of them out for ourselves. The tips in this post are based on our experiences, so things may be different for you. I'm still finding my way, after all! Let me know in the comments if you disagree or have other excellent points to share.

#1 The Thai culture is different to yours.
Always remember that your culture and the Thai culture are different. One of the reasons you came to Thailand is to learn about the culture, so do your best to try to understand it. A Thai friend told us that even though she's aware that some things are done differently in other cultures, she can't help but annoyed/disgusted/baffled when she experiences something Thai people deem to be offensive.

#2 Never shout or raise your voice at a Thai colleague.
Even if you're so angry that you could burst into a thousand flaming chunks of rage, hold it in and wait until you get home to spew your frustrations. Instead of yelling, decide if it's really worth getting into an argument over (most of the time it isn't), then smile and drop it to avoid conflict. There may come a time when you need to disagree with a Thai teacher. Be careful (see the next two points). As a side note, it's worth remembering that many foreigners are loud compared to Thai people, even when not angry, so you might be speaking too loudly without even realising it. I find it's good to always speak quite softly and with a smile.

#3 Show a lot of respect for older colleagues and those with more seniority.
In Thai culture, older teachers and those who are higher up the school ladder than you should be treated respectfully. Be the first to initiate all greetings and wai at them first. As I said before, you should never shout at a Thai colleague - particularly those with a few years under their belts, both at school and in life.

#4 Be really careful when you disagree with a Thai colleague.
If you disagree with a Thai colleague, even in the most reasonable and logical way, there's a chance that they will feel offended. This is especially true if the teacher is older or more senior than you. It's tricky. Disagreeing seems to be perceived as having a lack of respect and it doesn't matter if it that's not the case. Losing face here is a big deal, so causing a Thai colleague to lose face, by disagreeing with them or in any other way, won't win you any friends. I'm not saying you shouldn't disagree when you need to, simply be careful how you do it.

#5 Dress and act respectfully.
Dressing respectfully is pretty easy. At our school, that means girls have to wear business or formal style outfits with skirts to the knee or trousers and cover their shoulders. Guys must wear trousers and a shirt (a tie is appreciated too). If you dress too casually or break one of the dress code rules you'll cause problems for yourself - so leave your knee-high Docs and surfer shorts at home. My new orange-ginger hair seems to have been accepted, but I doubt I'd get away with the bright pink hair I used to have. Knowing how to act respectfully can be trickier! I've been told off by older Thai colleagues for acting disrespectfully (like by crossing my legs). I think that women are expected to act more respectfully than men, too. Of course, different schools and different people will have different ideas about what it means to act and dress respectfully. My advice is to use common sense. Here are some things I've learned:

·         Don't cross your legs or stick them out in front of you when sat down. Put them together with both feet flat on the floor.
·         Don't point with your feet, turn something on with them (like a fan or switch), open a door with them or move something out of the way with them.
·         Stand with your arms straight by your sides when the national anthem or King's anthem is playing.
·         Don't smoke in front of Thai colleagues unless you know them really well.
·         Don't sit on the floor, even to do crafts with your students. They were so shocked when I did this.

#6 Compliment your Thai colleagues' English skills.
Many Thai teachers seem to think their English is very bad. You will make them pretty happy if you take the time to compliment them on their English skills. It's pretty impressive when someone can speak more than one language at any level, don't you think? Tell them that!

#7 Use Thai.
Trying your best to speak Thai is really appreciated. No need to go overboard – simply learn how to say the basics. You'll really score brownie points if you use the local dialect. Luckily this is pretty easy in Chiang Mai – simply replace 'khaa' or 'khrab' with 'jow' and use the word 'sow' (as in a female pig) instead of 'yee-sib' to say the number 20. That last point works well with red car and tuk tuk drivers to get a cheaper fare too, by the way. Also, if you can sing along to the Loi Krathong song (even the English version) they'll love you forever.

#8 If you've annoyed a Thai colleague, apologise.
But I was in the right! I didn't shout or raise my voice! How can they be annoyed?” I'll admit, this is a difficult one to swallow. It doesn't matter if you were right, wrong or a starfish walking a tightrope. You just gotta apologise because the unpleasant atmosphere is unlikely to get better until you do. I find it's best to get my frustrations out, and then I go ahead and do it. To apologise properly, find a quiet moment, make your apology and give a gift - food items are a popular choice.

#9 Always accept gifts graciously.
So a Thai teacher gives you a bag of pancakes filled with fish paste and you'd rather eat worms than try one. It doesn't matter. Accept the gift graciously, with many thank-yous and a big smile. It's the thought that counts, right? It's good to give a gift in return. Sure, this can lead to an endless spiral of gift giving and receiving but if that's your biggest problem at work then you've got it pretty good. By the way, gifts aren't always as questionable as fish paste pancakes – we've happily received cake, fruit and other food items in the past and my friend Mayuree gave me some cheese from Germany the other day. It was incredible.

#10 Don't assume you know how your Thai colleagues feel about something.
Thai teachers don't usually tell you if they're upset. They might not have said anything, but that doesn't mean they're not annoyed. This is difficult when we come from a culture that encourages us to talk about our feelings, both good and bad. If a Thai teacher has a problem with you, they rarely simply tell you. Instead, they will tell other colleagues first, be a bit off with you, blank you and so on until you sort it out. That's when it's time to buy the teacher a gift and apologise.

#11 Be prepared for blunt honesty.
Having said all of the above, Thai people certainly don't hold back with some things. Fully expect to casually be to be told that you look fat or that you look ill and should go to hospital, or any other thing that most farang would consider offensive. They really honestly don't mean to be rude. It's perfectly normal and completely acceptable to call someone fat if they're larger than the average Thai (even if the person saying it is pretty big themselves). It's not considered at all offensive to ask someone if they have a skin disease because they have freckles. Went to work with dark circles under your eyes today? Someone is likely to point out that you look sick and might need hospital treatment.

I met a red car driver once who just wouldn't stop telling me that his lovely, beautiful daughter who just graduated with a first from uni was also “very very fat very stupid”. What was I supposed to say?

If you, like me, aren't a skinny Minnie then being called fat even after you just lost over two stone in weight is pretty disheartening. Boys aren't exempt from brutal honesty about looks or intelligence either. You have been warned! How to deal with it? A reader suggested simply explaining that saying such things isn't acceptable in your culture. Good idea!

#12 Don't bitch about Thai things in front of Thai colleagues.
Might seem obvious, but many people are guilty of this one. Even the Thai teachers who don't speak much English probably understand a lot more of what you're saying than you realise. It makes me cringe, but I'm sure I've done it too. Don't. Most Thai people are extremely patriotic and being disrespectful about anything Thai probably won't go down very well. Similarly, don't dismiss Thai opinions as being wrong because they're different from yours. They have grown up inside a totally different culture, with different messages coming from their TVs and newspapers to the ones you absorbed, been taught different ideas of right and wrong to you and learned different things at school to you. Different isn't always bad, just different. I'm not saying that the Thai way is better or worse than any other way, simply don't write it off as wrong straight away.

#13 Remember that your Thai colleagues might earn a different wage to you and have different benefits.
Young Thai teachers are probably earning a lot less than you. Older ones may well be earning a lot more, but you have no way of knowing. It's worth remembering this when you complain about your wage - grumble to your farang friends, not your Thai colleagues. Similarly they might receive different benefits. For example, this year we got a lot of time off in March, April and May. Some of the Thai teachers only got a few days off in April. I didn't know this, and so when I asked what a Thai colleague got up to in their holidays, she was pretty annoyed.

#14 Don't challenge the school systems.
It can be difficult to just go with the flow when it comes to something you feel strongly about. In most cases I would say to stand up for what you believe to be right, but at school, I would advise that you keep it to yourself, especially if you're new at the school. I understand that this can feel wrong, especially if you feel that you're letting your students down by not saying something. But, this post is about how to get on with your Thai colleagues and if you challenge the system then you probably won't. If you're reading this and you have challenged something and been successful in creating positive change, please share your story as I'm yet to hear of it happening.

I hope these points help you to have great relationships with your Thai colleagues. Thai people are mostly really nice, friendly people and are famously easy to get along with. Just remember you're in a different culture with different rules.

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