Cultural Landmines in Asia – How to Defuse them BEFORE Losing a Limb
There is no money in speaking languages. Particularly in this part of the world (Asia), it sometimes feels like the more languages you speak, the less money you stand to make. That is unless rather than focusing on the languages, you focus on what value those languages can bring to businesses working with the people who speak the languages you speak.
From aerospace, oil and gas and modern trade, to people smuggling, military relations and sustainable development, I have been fortunate to have learnt and been trained from some of the best minds in all of these areas and in return, they have capitalised on my ability to surf in and out of cultures, riding on linguistic and cultural waves, facilitating their agendas in multiple languages. The goal is to help them achieve their international goals without leaving a destructive wake behind them. Sadly, more often than not I am only called in after a considerable amount of damage had already been done.
I am writing this initial article in what I intend to be a series to share with anyone who has an interest in doing business across Asia, especially from China down through Southeast Asia including Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Cambodia (these are the countries where I primarily function and have the most experience).
The past several months have been quite intense working between two core projects both involving western shareholders – one US / UK based multinational and the other a large Western European multinational, and Asian Joint Venture (JV) partners that cover countries including Thailand, China, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.
The Power of Anonymity
In my days as a Dale Carnegie facilitator almost 20 years ago, we would conduct business health checks for clients. The goal then was to interview everyone in an organisation, from the very top to the very bottom and work out what programmes we had that would fit their needs. I could personally conduct interviews in English, Thai, Lao, Indonesian, Malay, Chinese and other languages, and I found that when people spoke in their mother tongues, combined with the fact that they knew that anything they said would not come back to burn them personally as all information shared remained anonymous by the time it got into any kind of report, a kind of magic happened. This is especially the case if fluency in the languages spoken is at a native or near native level and can get behind the subconscious block of me being a ‘foreigner’. After the initial dissonance between the way I looked and the way I spoke their language passed, I would always find information would come gushing out that had been dammed up for so long – and very often, the keys to how management would solve the issues that the business was facing were buried away deep down in these issues. The REAL magic happened when I stopped trying to see what ‘courses’ I had to fit their needs and just listen to what their needs were. Perhaps I didn’t have the solution to what they needed – the least I could do however was listen.
In many cases, the issues that I was called in to fix that executive management ‘thought’ they had weren’t the real issues at all. They were just seeing the surfaced by-product of much deeper problems that often had their roots many years prior to when they first noticed that they ‘had an issue’.
The Anatomy of a Session
The goal of the initial meetings with people in an organisation or across a JV project, is to meet individually with key executives from the executive board for extensive discussions on the current status of the project, and issues through their professional and cultural eyes, to set a framework of how future information gathering should be conducted, as well as get an idea of key areas that should be taken into consideration and verified when executing the health check.
I will then conduct my interviews facilitated in Thai / English or whatever language we mutually speak, with individual members of the management team, and then meet with workers on-site in a small group environment to build rapport and get to know them, and listen to them.
The ground rules agreed on for all meetings, interviews and discussions were and will continue to be throughout this project:
- All initial sessions will start with covering the ground rules and aim at building an environment of mutual trust;
- Wherever possible, participants can speak in their mother tongue and / or language of choice if that language is mutually intelligible;
- All information shared during the discussions will remain anonymous and wherever possible, all effort will be made to not link individuals to information that they had provided that could result in negative repercussions for them;
- It is up to the discretion of the interviewer as to what information is passed on to management. In such sessions, a lot of information is provided by all parties and the interviewer understands that sometimes information may be provided with alternate agendas and sometimes may cause unnecessary confusion. In this final report will attempt to paint the most relevant picture for the client of the business health culture / climate based on all the relevant information gleaned;
The concept of ‘Johari Window’ was introduced in the beginning of most sessions.
The following is a diagram of the Johari Window which is a tool that we can use when learning to understand ourselves. The window is divided into 4 quadrants describing ‘self’:
- Open Self (I Know / They Know);
- Blind Self (I Don’t Know / They Know);
- Hidden Self (I Know, They Don’t Know);
- Unknown Self (I Don’t Know, They Don’t Know);
The reason for introducing the Johari Window in the beginning of each session was to establish that there are many things that we know and may not know about ourselves. Especially when we come into an environment where many cultures are working together, there might be certain things that we do because we have always done that are interpreted very differently by the people of other cultures around us. In some cases, we might not even realise that we are doing anything that warrants even a second thought. In reality however, sometimes it’s those things that could be having the largest impact on the people in our environment, and it in turn affects their behaviour and attitude towards us and in this case, the project as a whole.
During the interviews, interviewees are encouraged to think about themselves, as well as think about those that they work with. They were asked to think of areas where they might be ‘blind’ to within themselves, as well as areas that they would hope are ‘known’ to everyone.
This framework helps uncover many of the cultural issues that they may have desired to have communicated to people at different levels of the organisation, but for some reason or other, haven’t done so.
What Locals Assume You Know – But Chances Are You Don’t
‘Common Sense’ is a term I often hear in my interviews with locals across the region. They are often left bewildered how some westerners could be so audacious and consistently and continuously make such seemingly avoidable mistakes when working across Asia.
In the following section, I will share with you some of the main points that locals – in this case especially in Thailand and Laos, have communicated that they wished westerners would know when they come to work in this part of the world.
In future articles, I will go into more detail about other countries in the region too.
Things Thais Wished You Knew
The following is an overview of some core concepts of Thai culture. Where possible, each concept will be linked into how it might be relevant in the workplace.
Please note that many of these concepts have their language originating in Sanskrit. For some English speakers, the Sanskrit term for several of these terms might be apparent (E.g. Karma), however sometimes these concepts are understood differently in the Thai mind.
Before going through the following explanations, please have a look at the following diagram. As you read through the explanations, this diagram will help visualise the concepts.
Core Thai Concepts Diagram
Karma कर्म and Punya पुण्य (กรรม kam Vs. บุญbun)
To the English speaker, ‘Karma’ is often understood as the concept of getting back what you give. If you do good things, good things will come back to you. If you do bad things, bad things will come to you.
To the Thai and Lao mind, ‘Karma’ (or กรรม ‘kam’ – rhymes with ‘sum’) is ONLY negative. Karma is the ‘bad’ that will happen to you as a result of doing bad things / committing some kind of sin in this or a past life.
To balance ‘Karma’ or ‘กรรม kam’, one must make merit which is called ‘บุญ bun’ which comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Punya’ which means ‘meritorious act’.
An easy way to think of this is for ‘Kam’ or ‘Karma’ to be negative credits and ‘Bun’ or ‘Punya’ to be positive credits. Life is a balance of making merit or ทำบุญ’Tham Bun’ to offset the ‘bad karma’ that has been created in this or other lifetimes.
This concept is taken very seriously and permeates throughout all aspects of Thai life – family, personal and professional.
We will come back to this balancing act of Karma and Punya in a business context.
Lieng การเลียง – Leaders Provide Sustenance In And Outside of the Workplace
We are all Lieng’ing someone, or being Lieng’d by someone – or both. Every ‘leader’, whether they are a father through blood, head of a village, leader of a company or even head of a department, should be the person who ‘Liengs’ their ลูกน้อง ‘Lu:k Nong’ – which are all of those who come under his / her care. A CEO of a company or department head doesn’t just pay someone’s salary. They should also have the physical, social, emotional and family needs of their ‘Lu:k Nong’ constantly in mind. That means if a mother’s child is sick, then you would do what you could within reason to help her take care of her child. If a family member dies, you help with funeral expenses and if you can’t attend, you would at least send someone to the funeral on your behalf. The concept of ‘Lieng’ is also met in any restaurant you would care to visit. Whoever is the person who invited the other people to dinner, to a birthday party or other event, it is the person who invites the others that should เลี้ยง ‘lieng’ the invitees. If you are having a work dinner, or take your team to a meal somewhere, you should never expect them to pay. ‘Going Dutch’ or ‘Splitting the Bill’ which in Thai is called ‘American Share’ is not looked upon kindly and is something that should be avoided unless going out with long term friends who are all of the same perceived power level. Power levels are usually gauged by age, rank and / or income. Rather than trying to figure out who should pay the bill, the best practice is to offer to pay before someone else does. There will often be an exchange at the end of a meal who gets the bill. In circumstances where you often eat out, each person of a group usually takes turn in picking up the whole bill each time.
In the work context, all people in positions of leadership should understand that in the Thai and Lao minds, they are responsible for taking care of the needs of the people under them both inside and outside of work hours. It’s their loyalty to you that pays their bills and lets their families have stability and health.
Thai Leadership – Pradet พระเดช and Prakhun พระคุณ
- Phradet พระเดช – Authoritarian father / rule of law / may punish / decisive / strong;
- Phrakhun พระคุณ – Merciful father / เลี้ยง ‘Liengs’ or takes care of the physical, emotional and financial sustenance of his people and is their protector;
A good leader will always maintain a balance of ‘Phradet’ and ‘Phrakhun’.
In Thai, there is no such word as ‘You’. You will hear Thais use the word คุณ ‘Khun’ as a substitute for ‘You’ and also as a prefix to people’s names. ‘Khun’ comes from the Sanskrit word गुुण ‘guna’ which means ‘respect’ and ‘honour’. When you are calling someone ‘Khun John’, you are really saying ‘Respected one called John’. The reality is that in Thai, it is not really possible to address ANYBODY without inferring some kind of power relationship. Choosing to use ‘Khun’ to call someone who is close to you – whether attached to their name or used as a stand alone word, could infer distance and lack of warmth in the relationship. Many Thais will use the terms of kin พี่ phî (older brother / sister), น้อง nóng (younger brother / sister), ป้า pâ (aunt), ลุง loong (uncle) etc. For many bosses, they might use the word หนู ‘noo’ meaning ‘little mouse’ when refering to younger females who work for them who might be old enough to be their daughter / niece. All of this language, reinforces power relationships and these terms will generally stay faithful to the leadership lines of seniority.
The พระ- ‘Phra’ affix is something added to many Thai words to make them holy or ‘high’. There is an entire set of vocabulary in Thai set aside to be used for Royal family members. The ‘Phra’ affix is often added to already known words to form the ‘high’ or ‘deified’ version of the word.
In the case of ‘Phradet’ พระเดช and ‘Phrakhun’ พระคุณ, these are terms often associated with the leader of all leaders – the King. Just like with the ‘Yin Yang’ balance of ‘Karma’ and ‘Punya’, It is only when a leader demonstrates that they have the trait of ‘Phrakhun’ (grace and mercy), that they will be entitled to exercise the ‘Phradet’ พระเดช ‘Authoritarian father who rules by strong law and order’.
In the int
ernational workplace in Thailand, many foreign leaders make the mistake of thinking that demonstrating traits of ‘Phradet’ are things that will reinforce their perception as a strong leader in the eyes of their people.
The concept of ‘Work is work, private life is private life’ cannot be applied to working in a Thai or Lao working environment. Work and personal lives are all rolled into one. You cannot raise your voice in the workplace at somebody, or do anything else that will cause someone to lose face and not expect them to hold that against you for a long time. Even if in the future when things might appear to be better, if you have ever lost your temper at a Thai, they will in many cases be always on guard in the future, and when the first scent of that temper being lost again rears its head, they will go into defence mode.
Using a loud voice or speaking down to the people under your command is only acceptable if you have earned enough ‘phrakhun’ merit to offset it. Otherwise, you could have a rebellion on your hands.
Thais will remember. The good thing is that you can use this ‘memory’ to your advantage, as if you have established the ‘Phrakhun’ side, people will remember that too. When someone exercises ‘Phrakun’ or ‘grace and mercy’ with someone, they are creating a ‘Bunkhun’ debt with that person that they were merciful to. If the balance is really there, you won’t even have to exert much ‘Phradet’, as the loyalty of those under you will drive them to want to make you proud of them and in a perfect scenario, they will be anticipating your needs before you even think of them and taking care of things for you.
Foreigners who open companies in Thailand are often surprised when, on firing one employee (or losing them for one reason or another), rather than losing just one person, they lose a whole chunk of their organisation. As you can see in the diagram, people build kingdoms below them. These kingdoms shift and change general positions throughout one’s lifetime, but the general structures and ‘Bunkhun’ debts remain in tact and loyalty is often kept from youth until the grave.
When looking at a situation of a multinational project in Thailand, in the eyes of many Thais, two very different ‘games’ are being played. While the success of this immediate project is important, it is important that it will bring pride, prestige, success and a stable future for the company that feeds them and their family.
Regardless who their ‘boss’ is in the superficial / temporary org chart that is in place for this particular project, the connections to their people both above and below remain in tact and will continue through to the next project and the one after. In a rational Thai mind, it does not make sense to forsake a lifetime of mutual respect with your ‘Sen’ just for the success of a project where little respect is perceived to be coming from the ‘temporary’ leaders.
It can get worse. If the leaders at the very top of a project see that the ‘temporary’ leaders are not taking good care of their ลูกน้อง ‘lu:k nong’ (subordinates / people under their care), they may step in in their role as leader and do what needs to be done to protect them from those demonstrating lack of respect or that could cause them hardship in one way or another.
After having spoken with many Thais during Health Check interviews, we discussed how it couldn’t just be a one sided effort on the foreigners / westerners to learn about Thai culture and do everything the ‘Thai way’. The Thais will usually agree, and look forward to be able to start to work together and exercise more understanding and being more open to seeing positive changes in the way people work, as well as give certain foreign managers that they might have given up on, a new chance.
When mutual understanding improves, attitudes start to loosen up in a positive way and there is less need for those at the very top to exert more forceful measures that would otherwise be used to protect their people. In the end, they just want their people respected and taken care of.
Barami บารมี – What Leaders Strive For
‘Barami’ is a characteristic commonly associated with the most beloved leaders of Thais – especially attributed to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. A real leader will have earned so much respect with those under him / her that no ‘Phradet’ actions are needed to be taken. The general sense of power and authority radiates from them and very little needs to be demanded by the leader. The way to achieve Barami, is to build up strong stores of ‘Phrakhun’ and working ways of not having to exert ‘Phradet’ as much.
Sen เส้น (線)
‘Sen’ is then ‘string’ that links people together. In English we may translate this as ‘connections’. In Chinese culture, this is similar to 關係 ‘Guan Xi’.
In Thai workplaces – and even in personal lives, people will often establish who is connected to whom so as to establish where one sits in the food chain. It is always in one’s interest to be connected to เส้นใหญ่’Sen Yai’ or a ‘Big Sen’. Often, if people know that someone is connected to someone of power and / or importance, things can become much easier for them.
One mistake that many foreigners make when working in Thai business environments is thinking that promotions, contracts and everything else work primarily on merit. Through not respecting ‘Sen’, things can start to become very difficult.
In an ideal world, you want to hook yourself into the largest ‘sen’ you can, but hopefully never really have to call on it.
Jai ใจ – Heart and Mind
If you ask a Thai / Laotian to point to their ‘mind’, chances are they will point to their heart. In Thai, the word ‘Jai’ ใจ means your metaphorical ‘heart’. It is where ‘you’ think, feel and generally exist.
The term ‘Jai’ is used as a prefix or suffix to most things that speak about feelings, emotions and other psychological states.
Nam Jai น้ำใจ and Kreng Jai เกรงใจ
When Thais in the interviews were asked “What key points about Thai culture would you like non-Thais to have a better understanding of?”, the unanimous response was น้ำใจ ‘Nam Jai’ and เกรงใจ ‘Kreng Jai’.
‘Nam Jai’ น้ำใจ – To have Nam Jai, is to be considerate of someone else’s state / condition and act in a way that takes that into consideration and act mercifully, even if your own state / condition is not the same. For example, if a boss saw that an employee’s cousin had passed away and that employee didn’t have any more sick days left, having ‘nam jai’ would be telling them to take some time off to go back up country to attend the funeral and help the family and they might even provide some financial assistance too. In general, any ‘considerate’ action could be said to have stemmed from having ‘Nam Jai’.
‘Kreng Jai’ เกรงใจ – Imagine that when you are born, you are born with many arms not unlike the images you see of the Hindu goddess Kali. Those arms are metaphorical representations of all the outward attributes you have – those things that the rest of the world has to interface with; the sound of your voice, the volume of your voice, the language you use, the clothes you wear, the actions you take, the way you walk, the way you behave and the way you treat others. All of those things are your ใจ ‘jai’.
When you are born, all of those things are flailing about like uncontrolled arms, knocking into things, tipping them over and generally creating a disturbance wherever you go.
Your goal in life is to demonstrate เกรงใจ ‘Kreng Jai’ (note that the ‘k’ in ‘kreng’ is pronounced almost like a ‘gk’ like the ‘k’ in ‘ski’ and not like the ‘k’ in the English word ‘king’) – that is, through being considerate, you will ‘pull’ those metaphorical arms in so that your presence on the planet doesn’t cause a disturbance to anyone else. Even if YOU think that you might be helping someone, perhaps in their mind you aren’t helping them. In that case, it’s better to not do or say anything and instead do whatever you can to make them feel good and not cause any disharmony with them.
In the work context, this becomes complex.
In Thai, there is no word for ‘Yes’. If you ask a Thai how to say ‘yes’, they will most likely say the word ‘Khrap’ ครับ, but this word merely means ขอรับ ‘Kho Rap’ – “May what has been said be received”. It doesn’t mean that there is agreeance or an affirmative answer to what has been asked.
For example “Somchai – how’s that report going that’s due on Friday … is it going to be done?”
“Yes / ครับ Khrap”
To a Thai leader, this simple ครับ Khrap doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be finished on Friday. The fact that Somchai hasn’t followed through after the simple ‘Yes’, might mean that he is struggling and it might be wise to investigate further or start getting a plan ‘B’ together. Somchai was ‘Kreng Jai’ to cause the boss stress which could cause the opposite of ‘Punya’, which would cause bad Karma for Somchai too. It’s better to not cause the Karma. A good leader would read the situation and see it as an opportunity to create ‘Bunkhun’ to help Somchai.
The applications of ‘Kreng Jai’ in Thai society are many and is a term heard daily in both personal and professional environments.
Over the years of running cultural workshops for foreigners living and doing business in SE Asia and especially Thailand, one fundamental difference between the local mindset and the foreign mindset is that many foreigners seem to be looking for a list of rules that tell them in black and white what they can and cannot do. They will then enter into discussions in the tone of “Well, if I did ‘x’ could I get away with it?” – this is not the point. Many guidebooks will give a list of do’s and don’ts while in Thailand, but it shouldn’t have to come down to that. Rather, the Thai mind would be looking at ‘What kinds of things should I be Kreng Jai’ about, and then they would try to be overly cautious not to do anything that would risk encroaching on someone else. At least, that is the Thai perception of what Thais would do. Whether this actually happens in real life is debatable, however it would be a good exercise for especially westerners looking to work effectively with Thais and Laotians, to take these principles to heart and rather than look for black and white ‘Do’s’ and ‘Don’ts’, try and view everything in your environment through the lens of these principles and all the principles that you will learn in the future, and adjust things wherever possible, accordingly. The mere effort of doing so will be appreciated and in most cases rewarded.
Imagine that every time something that is the opposite of ‘Phrakhun’ or ‘merciful / respectful’ happens, a person’s ใจ ‘heart / mind’ like a spring, compresses. For many Thais, there are very few ways that this pent up emotion can be released or ‘ระบาย’ ‘rabai’. Over time, this spring is pushed so far down, it’s quivering just wanting to spring up and explode. It takes so much mental energy to stop this spring from releasing that someone who has built up Akati towards someone or something, can’t really focus on doing much more than holding the spring down especially when that person is near – or even mentioned – or something nearby reminds them of that person or thing.
When ‘Akhati’ explodes, it can be fatal.
Is A Functional Cross Cultural Working Environment Possible?
If you have worked in Thailand and indeed across SE Asia, as you read through the above ‘concepts’ that Thais hoped / expected that anyone who worked in the region understood, I’m sure that you can think of things that have happened that related to each of the points. Some clients after hearing about these concepts for the first time – and after realising all the areas that they might have made mistakes, lose heart and question the possibility of any East / West alliance ever being able to function properly.
From my experience, I have seen many alliances work very well, producing amazing results. The key is to establish a common culture between everyone on the ground that they all belong to rather than taking a route that causes larger divides between different groups throughout an organisation.
Many of the concepts discussed here are applicable to other cultures in the region, especially across Southeast Asia. I will discuss these in future articles, however, you don’t have to wait for that next article. Take some of these points that I have mentioned here and regardless of what country you are in, open a dialogue informally at your next dinner together, or over lunch about whether or not these kinds of things exist in the culture you are working in. The very action of enquiry is bound to go down well and can be the beginning of some amazing learnings that could change the way you do business – not to mention create bonds across cultures that will over time become priceless.