Tips to Bridge Thai and Western Working Culture
By Tom Sorensen
Wednesday, 20th December 2023

It is no wonder that foreign executives and Thai colleagues or staff at times find each other complete idiots.

Just think of these potential pitfalls: Do you use first name or last name addressing each other, body language, passing on something with right or left hand, greeting gestures like soft or hard hand-shake, dress-code like wearing long- or short sleeve dress shirt in business, gift-giving, social customs, and behavioural protocols.

What may be considered perfectly acceptable and natural in one country, can be confusing or even offensive in another.

So, when you work internationally or interact daily with other people from different countries, within your company or with others abroad, it’s essential to be aware of cultural differences.

There are literally hundreds of books written about cultural dimensions. Attempting to draw any conclusions from just one blog will indeed seem foolish. I agree. But here it is.

What are the 5 Cultural Dimensions?

You cannot talk about cross-culture and not refer to Geert Hofstede or Erin Meyer. Hofstede is perhaps the best-known sociologist of culture for understanding international business.

His 5 Cultural Dimensions model is the most comprehensive framework of national cultures that are widely used – particularly in the field of business.

Hofstede identified five dimensions or ‘problem areas’ which represent differences among national cultures.

  • Power distance: The extent to which a subordinate accepts that the power to control and manage is always the boss above you.
  • Individualism vs. collectivism: The degree to which people have either loose ties to immediate family and friends or very tight relationships with the nearest family and other in-groups.
  • Masculinity vs. femininity: Is your preference achievement, assertiveness, heroism, and material rewards for your success? Or is it more cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and your quality of life?
  • Uncertainty avoidance: Do you believe that the future can never be known? Should we try to control the future or just let it happen? Just take it as it comes. This uncertainty brings anxiety.
  • Long-term orientation vs. short-term orientation: Do you believe in keeping and honouring traditions by maintaining links to the past, being constant, faithful, loyal, and resolute? Or are you dealing with the challenges of the present and future with pragmatic problem-solving as a necessity?

How Thailand compares to other cultures

Power distance: Thailand scores 64 of 100. It means it’s a culture in which inequalities are accepted; it means that a strict chain of command and protocol are observed.

Each rank has its privileges and employees show loyalty, respect and deference to their superiors in return for protection and guidance.

Individualism: With a score of 20 Thailand is a highly collectivist country. There is a close long-term commitment to family and extended relationships.

  • Loyalty overrides most other societal rules and regulations.
  • Thai are not confrontational.
  • A “Yes” may not mean an acceptance or agreement.
  • An offence leads to loss of face and Thai are very sensitive not to feel shamed.
  • Personal relationship is key to conducting business and it takes time to build such relations thus patience is necessary. It’s important not openly discuss business on first occasions.

Masculinity: Thailand scores 34 so is a Feminine society. It has the lowest ranking among Asian countries (average score 53) and a World average of 50.

This lower level is indicative of a society with less assertiveness, less competitiveness, and fewer ambitions, as compared to other Asian countries where these values are considered more important and significant (like Singapore, Vietnam).

Uncertainty avoidance: Thailand scores an intermediate 64 indicating a preference for avoiding uncertainty.

People do not readily accept change. There is a general acceptance of strict rules, laws, policies, and regulations to control everything.

Long-term orientation: Thailand’s low score of 32 indicates strong concern with establishing the absolute truth.

There is great respect for traditions, a relatively small interest to save for the future but more of a focus on achieving quick results.

Compare your own nationality to another

The cool thing is that you can easily compare your own nationality with any other. Compare and learn.

  • If you are a foreigner and like to compare yourself with your Thai colleagues.
  • If you are Thai and want to compare yourself with your farang boss?

Go to Hofstede Insights: www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison

Tips for Thais with a foreign boss

When your boss looks serious and stressed, it’s not because she does not like you, care for or respect you. She is just focusing on doing her own job.

The most important tip for foreigners with Thai staff

Do not and ever think that your Thai staff know your personal preferences to the following – and why the most important tip is that you must tell everyone exactly how you want things done the first day in office.

Tom Sorensen is an executive search veteran with over 25 years of experience recruiting in Asia, Europe, and Africa. He has worked in executive search in Thailand since 2003 and is recognized as one of the country’s top recruiters and most profiled headhunters.


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