This series is edited by Dick Locke, SI’s resident expert on International Trade, author of Global Supply Management — A Guide to International Procurement (which was the definitive guide for almost a decade), and President of the Global Procurement Group which regularly gives seminars on International Trade and working with International Cultures.
As highlighted in last year’s post on Overcoming Cultural Differences in International Trade with Thailand, Thailand is is fiercely independent, astutely diplomatic, and a very distinct trading partner to deal with as over 95% of its population declare themselves as Buddhist, with the majority belonging to the Theravada school of Buddhism. As a result, in negotiations, which you cannot rush, you should be prepared to avoid direct confrontations at all costs.
With respect to Locke‘s seven key cultural differences (first outlined as six in his classic text on Global Supply Management), power distance is high as they believe that authority and power are natural to the human condition and that hierarchy is good for you. Time is not just polychronic, but cyclical. As a result, there is no rush to seize an opportunity as it will come around again. And while many social researchers indicate that the buyer has a high rank, this isn’t really the case as buyers and sellers don’t have a status in the Thai belief system, only people. As a result, both senior negotiators will be equal, and there will be a desire to work together to create harmony, which is very important. Saving the face of others is very important, individualism is low, and uncertainty avoidance is high. Furthermore, with security before risk-taking and a belief that easy work for sufficient pay is better than hard work for high pay, there is a large reluctance to initiate change.
With respect to verbal communication, they are indirect, even though personal questions may be asked so they may understand where to place you in their hierarchy, as this is essential for them to “harmonize” with you. You must speak lowly and calmly and avoid confrontation at all costs.
With respect to non-verbal communication, your facial expressions and body position are more important than your words. You should keep your emotions in check, avoid waving your hands or making other large gestures when you talk, keep your hands out of your pockets, and never lay your arm over the back of a chair someone is sitting in. Personal space is very important to the Thai, so don’t stand too close, and you should avoid touching them. While limited touching between the same sex is okay between friends and colleagues (but never between strangers), touching the opposite sex is taboo. Finally, eye contact is common, as they want to put you at ease.
Meetings should be well planned in advance, but don’t expect them to get down to business until at least the fourth day, as they want to get to know you first. Negotiations will be slow, as decisions must pass through many levels, but they will progress if you are patient. Meals are also a part of the business culture, and cutlery is more common (although sticky rice may be eaten with the right hand), and the host always pays the bill. And while the Chinese might like it if you play fight for the bill, you should never offer to pick up or split the bill in Thailand.
Finally, greetings follow the wai.