Communicating in a Foreign Country: In this introduction, we will attempt to be brief, while touching on several of the more important aspects of communicating in a foreign culture. It almost goes without saying that when you want to communicate your needs or emotions in a foreign country, politeness is of the utmost importance, especially when you are in Asia. The Asian stereotype of Westerners is that they are loud, blunt, clumsy, and insensitive to matters of dress and general social behavior. They also refer to Westerners as people with "red" (i.e., brown) hair and long noses, when speaking among themselves, or in joking about us. At the same time, they regard most of us as being open-minded and generous, and they look up to Westerners for their advances in technology and the sciences. So the walls of communication are not that difficult to scale, if you know and follow a few common-sense rules. In speaking politely, pay attention to the volume of your voice, and begin your conversation or request with a smile. Thailand is called "Land of Smiles." Remember: "Lose your cool, and you lose your case." Where appropriate, begin your request with, "Excuse me" in English or in Thai 'khaw tote'---where khaw rhymes with law. Many Thais, especially in Bangkok, speak some English. However, in speaking English to foreigners, it is best to speak slowly and clearly and in short phrases or single words, even pointing to objects in the immediate environment to get your point across. However, don't raise your voice if the person you are talking to does not respond. Instead repeat yourself in slow, simple English. And once you conclude your exchange, close it with a "Thank you" ---- in Thai 'khawp khun khrahp' (for a male speaker) or 'khawp khun khah' (for a female speaker).
Thai Linguistic Etiquette: Conservative and courteous social behavior and dress are highly valued by the Thais. The Thai pronouns for 'I' are different for male and female speakers. Men will use 'phome' and women 'dee-chan' in formal settings. However, it is common to drop these formal pronouns in face-to-face conversations or to use kin terms (e.g., elder/younger sibling ; aunt uncle) or first names instead. Men will also show deference by ending their questions and statements with 'khrahp', a "polite particle" to show respect and refinement. Women end their questions and statements with 'khah'. While greeting, the Thais normally wai rather than shake hands. To make the wai, place your hands together, bringing them up just under the nose and bow the head slightly. Because it is a sign of respect as well, the younger person initiates the gesture, not the reverse.
Body Language: Head, Hands, and Feet: The Thais consider the head to be sacred and the feet profane. Touching someone's head, other than a child's, is taboo. A younger person or someone of lower social status will even lower their head in passing by a senior. In sitting too, especially in the presence of monks or other exalted persons, attention must be paid to head level. Even more caution must be taken with the feet because of their contact with dirt and "pollution." Similarly, the left hand is "polluted" in ritual meaning. In entering hallowed spaces such as temples, classrooms, even someone's home, shoes are removed. (For your own convenience, loafers are best.) In rural settings, where it is common to walk barefoot, the feet are bathed at the entrance to the house. In offering food to monks during their morning rounds, the offering laity remove footwear as a sign of respect. Women will also avoid touching a monk in making an offering. On occasions where gifts are given or received, the gift--tastefully wrapped--is always presented and received with the right hand. The left hand is ritually cupped below the right elbow and the head bowed slightly in respect. The act may be completed with a wai also. Feet should never be used to shove an object on the floor to someone. In sitting, take care to avoid pointing the feet, even unintentionally, at someone else. While siting on the floor, men can sit cross-legged; women "tuck" their legs to the side. In festive occasions, women and men tend to congregate and converse with members of their own gender.
Dress: In official settings such as temples, government buildings, schools and universities, conservative dress is the appropriate attire. As in many European churches, tourists are barred from entering Thai Buddhists temples if they are wearing shorts; women cannot wear sleeveless blouses inside temple compounds. When meeting with officials or while at formal meetings, men wear long sleeve shirts and a necktie, and women dress in a conservatively as well.
Spoken Tones and Basic Grammar: A striking feature of Thai is that it is a tonal language. Each syllable carries a distinct tone. Bangkok speech has 5 spoken tones. A change in syllable pitch level (high, mid, low) or contour (rising, falling) results in a change in tone and lexical meaning. For example, to come=maa [mid tone]; horse=maa [high tone]; dog=maa [rising tone]; to ride=khee [low tone] ; but excrement=khee [falling tone]. In brief, Thai, like English, is a Subject + Verb + Object [SVO] language. However, unlike English, modifiers follow the nouns they modify. Questions (e.g., "yes/no"; "right") are asked by adding a question word or phrase at the end of an utterance or by employing "wh-words": what, who, when, why, etc. Counting is carried out with the use of classifiers: 'tua' for animals, 'khone' for people, 'jahn' for platefuls, 'ahn' for things in general, etc. In the following list of Common Expressions, the romanized spellings are only an approximation of the native pronunciation. Differences in tone are not shown. The best thing to do is to play the speeches and repeat them aloud until you have mastered them. If you spend 15 minutes a day to learn 5 words you will quickly have enough spoken Thai under your command. Even a few words and phrases will impress the Thais with your willingness to communicate with them in their own language and thereby promote a sense of mutual understanding and appreciation.
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LINKS TO THAI TRAVEL SITES
- helpful general information for the tourist
http://www.bangkokpost.com/ - Bangkok newspaper in English; currency rates; travel information
http://www.seasite.niu.edu/Thai/currency/default.htm - all about Thai currency
http://www.seasite.niu.edu/Thai/food/restaurant_talk.htm - restaurant talk; food glossary
http://www.seasite.niu.edu/Thai/food/food.htm - more on food
http://www.seasite.niu.edu/Thai/conver_vocab/default.htm - fun talk and pictures from student diary
http://www.seasite.niu.edu/Thai/LLF/profile.htm - A profile of the Thai language
http://www.cdc.gov/travel/seasia.htm - Health Information for Travelers to Southeast Asia
http://www.1000traveltips.org/thailand.htm - tips for tourist
http://www.therice.org/ - Information of Thai Rice