Contributed by Rosanne Hortensius, General Manager, Saleduck Asia
Editorial note: even when dealing with issues around marketing and technology it would be unwise to ignore the importance of face-to-face and interpersonal communication. This article focuses on doing business in Thailand and provides you with useful tips how to behave when doing business in the Land of Smiles, digital or otherwise.
One of the most popular countries amongst travellers looking to immerse themselves in Southeast Asian culture, Thailand is also quickly blossoming into a business hub with savvy, young entrepreneurs looking to sow their seeds in the Land of Smiles. Its capital Bangkok, is currently one of the leading startup scenes in Southeast Asia and has been touted as its next Silicon Valley.
With all of this in mind, the importance of familiarising oneself with the cultural ecosystem of a foreign city comes without question. While there are definitely cultural elements that overlap between the countries that inhibit the Southeast Asian region, there are also plenty of unique components that set them apart from one another and this is very much evident in how the Thais approach business practices.
From the way that meetings are conducted to the preferred forms of social media platforms in which interactions are enabled, this article acts as a guideline on the etiquette, customs and conventions within the professional environment in Thailand.
It is common for most professional organisations in Thailand to adopt a vertical organisational structure with a clearly defined hierarchy. This can sometimes be seen in company portraits where top-level management are positioned front and center, often seated while surrounded by other individuals within the company as well as in company meetings, where individuals sit according to rank -the person of the highest rank usually sits at the head of the table, second-in- charge on his or her right and the third sits on the left. Additionally, it is also customary for people in the room to stand when a senior member walks in.
Management styles also typically employ a top down approach whereby an executive decision maker calls the shots and the information is disseminated to the subordinates within the organisation.
This method is often taken into account when an external party intends on forging business relationships with a particular organisation, they will usually first approach the most senior person within the organisation as it is possible for them to refer down the hierarchy to delegate the responsibility but not vice versa.
Relationships are valued and business dealings often center around first building a relationship. Negotiations rarely take place prior to being personally or formally acquainted.
It is unusual to embark on business partnerships over the phone or email without first meeting face-to-face. This is seen the best way to get to know an acquaintance and also, a step towards establishing trust. Potential collaborators will often have informal meetings over coffee or dinner to get to know one another on a personal level before discussing business endeavours.
As the Thais strongly value relationships, personal and insider connections are of great importance and they often work hard to help or assist friends and family. In a business setting this can be very beneficial as you are more likely to receive assistance if you are well-connected or have a friendly relationship with someone who can influence the course of the decisions being made.
With regards to relationships between leaders and subordinates the Thais place great emphasis on the concept of respect towards their elders and in business settings, leaders are often viewed as a stand-in for one’s elders and therefore, are treated with respect and loyalty.
Despite a clearly defined organisational structure, it is still common for leaders to be on friendly terms with their employees, occasionally going for drinks and team outings after working hours and in some instances, acting as a mentor and providing them with guidance on both professional and personal terms.
Thais are wonderfully affectionate and expressive and this comes through even when they are conversing via social media or through instant messenger tools. Emojis are regularly used to express emotions of joy, gratitude, frustration, etc and this practice often comes through between business associates who are close or familiar with one another.
Thailand is not referred to as the Land of Smiles for nothing. The Thais are known for their laid-back vibes and their love for laughter. Being able to relax, share a joke and have a good time with your Thai peers will definitely get you a long way.
Confrontation and Communication
Conflict is avoided and harmony is placed above competition. The Thais are generally non-confrontational, therefore outspokenness, harsh opinions and candour are avoided during in-person interaction. As Thais tend to be less direct, it is important that you learn to read between the lines and pay attention to what isn’t being said such as body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and etc.
For example, directly saying “no” to a suggestion will probably be too harsh of a response, so a Thai person might attempt to soften the blow by suggesting an alternative or by saying something along the lines of ‘that might not be possible at this time.”
Core decisions are often reserved for the top tiers of management, especially in traditionally corporate environments with hierarchical structures. Again, this ties back to the company’s leaders being seen as the figurehead and employees seldom question these decisions as doing so may be considered as disrespectful.
Awards and Titles
Thais put a lot of stock on awards and titles as they are seen as a symbol of prestige and credibility. Consumers and businesses often associate the amount of trust they would put into a person or product based on the awards they have received or the title that they bear. For example, the Thais are more likely to trust and endorse a popular online shopping site or award-winning product compared to smaller, independent entities.
In an effort to build greater trust amongst Thai shoppers, new websites can for example, share the accolades that they have received on their page, have a clearly visible ‘contact’ and ‘about us’ page, share a list of well-known partners or brands that they have worked with and more.
Visuals and Aesthetics
Thailand is such a vibrant and visual place by nature and the Thais also happen to love Japanese and South Korean pop culture, hence their fondness for all things cute, cuddly and bright. You’ll notice that a lot of popular websites in Thailand such as Pantip.com and Sanook.com feature cute, recognisable icons as well as bold graphics. Mascots and even PR materials are also designed to be cute and colourful to appeal to the Thais. Understanding and being able to take advantage of these trends can be a powerful tool and businesses looking to launch in Thailand can definitely use this as inspiration when designing their websites and promotional materials.
Additionally, one of the leading factors behind LINE’s popularity in Thailand is due to the app’s ‘stickers’ – adorable cartoon characters that can be used in chats in place of emoji. Featuring original characters as well as popular well-known anime, gaming and movie characters, these stickers can either be downloaded for free or purchased from the LINE sticker shop.
Image is important in Thailand and business formal dress codes are strictly adhered to, especially within large firms and governmental organisations as it projects an image of professionalism. For meetings, full business suits are often worn.
While Thai customs are still relatively conservative to their Western counterparts, it is also very much in their nature to be warm and welcoming to new faces – even within a professional context. The points above cover the most basic elements that govern Thai business practices and familiarising one’s self with some of these customs will not only contribute to better understanding and interactions when doing business in Thailand, it is ultimately a gesture of respect.
With all that is being said, the recent passing and mourning for King Rama IX dominates both business and society, and will do so for a while to come. The official touring period will last for about a year. This brings about an added layer of cultural sensitivities that one must pay attention to. The importance and impact of this on daily life in Thailand cannot be stressed enough.
Start by following the advice put forth by local media as a means of finding out how one can be mindful of the customs surrounding this period. You will notice many Thais dressed in black clothing as an expression of mourning and while you may not be expected to follow suit, one should always aim to be respectful in the way you choose to dress and behave and while you will find that many locals will be welcoming towards enquiries about His Majesty, always remember to keep your line of questioning compassionate.
But even as Thailand undergoes its one-year of mourning for their beloved King the country remains a kingdom built on rich history, breathtaking scenery and a nation of loving people.
The author is a 3rd party contributor to AdAsia and this article represents her views.
Photo credit: image via tumblr.com