Hospitality in the land of smile – buddhist influence on guest service

Welcome

Hello and a friendly welcome to my blog! Today I would like to tell you a bit about my adventure with Thailand and how I experienced the land of smile.

Who I am

 Since I am talking about my personal journey with Thailand, I feel like I should tell you at least a little bit about me. I am currently 21 years old and most of my life I have spent in Germany. For my study of hospitality management, I moved to the Netherlands. As you can see, my cultural background and hospitality experience are both strongly influenced by European culture which made me even more excited to follow a course with a Thai university.

A picture of me working on an event couple of years ago. Source: personal collection

Being welcomed to the land of smile

My Thailand experienced started already before the actual course started. Since the course did take place online, all students, including me, were added into a virtual classroom where we were welcomed with very kind words. This kindness was extended once the classes started. The university hosted a lecture to welcome all new students and introduce both, the university and the country of Thailand. Even though the lecture took place online, from a place over 8,ooo kilometres away and with a time difference of six hours, I was able to feel the friendliness of my professors. There was always a warm and sincere smile on their face and they really put their energy into their various parts of this lecture. While expressing their condolences and disappointment with their and our online-situation, they made the promise to still give us the best experience possible. And looking back on seven weeks of online classes and events, this was a promise which they kept!

Slide from my university’s introduction lecture. Source: NHL Stenden

Classes with a smile

The warm feeling transmitted during the introduction lecture was held high in almost all of my other classes. I do not think that I can remember a single class that started with a professor not smiling, especially the Thai professors. Even on days where we the students were admittedly rather tired and quiet, their friendliness continued. We as students were lucky enough to benefit from several Thai guest speakers telling us about their country, culture and nation. Before joining this Thailand adventure I heard this saying that Thailand is the land of smiles and I always thought its kinda an exaggeration. People here in Germany also smile (from time to time to be honest though)! But even in an online setting, I realised that this saying is solid. All the guest speakers gave us a constant warm and reassuring smile. Something that must have been hard for them as well due to the online situation. But still, they looked at us with a bright smile on their face. But it is not only the smiling faces I remember from many classes. Unlike with many of my old lectures, here the speakers were asking us almost constantly if we are still with them, understanding what they are saying or whether any of us had a question. To me, it always felt like it was a priority for them to ensure that we as students are having a good and understandable lecture.
These are only examples of how friendly almost everyone was during my online semester. Both, the professors’ and the guest speakers’ friendliness is something that really stuck with me. Especially when comparing this to memories of some European professors…. This made me curious, what is so different about teaching from Thailand to teaching here in Europe.

Two Thais smiling. Source: ImpactGroup

Buddhism Basics

I started to wonder where this friendliness I experienced from this country is coming from. Talking to a few of the European professors on campus they hinted towards the Buddhist influence I experienced. Indeed, Buddhism and its broad influence is not the only thing that makes Thai people so nice and friendly. The cultural norms in Thailand dictate a more soft way of communicating, probably what we Europeans understand as friendliness (1). The Buddhist influence on the culture itself, however, cannot be neglected, which is why I would like to focus on Buddhism in this blog. These are only examples of how friendly almost everyone was during my online semester. Both, the professors’ and the guest speakers’ friendliness is something that really stuck with me. Especially when comparing this to memories of some European professors…. This made me curious, what is so different about teaching from Thailand to teaching here in Europe.

Thailand and Buddhism

With 95% of the people in Thailand belonging to the Buddhist religion (4), the religion is certainly very strong in Thailand. Here ,however, it is worth noticing that there is not one Buddhism, but many sects or groupings with different interpretations (4). Nevertheless, the influence this religion has cannot be neglected. Therefore, it is important to understand the core values one can find within Buddhism.

Buddhism at its core

One of the core beliefs in Buddhism is the concepts reincarnation and of karma. Karma basically means that what you do comes back to you, whether you do good or bad (4). This concept can also be seen in one of Buddha’s calls to show compassion for every one (4). Other fundamental characteristics are altruism and joyfulness in what you do and that your actions should benefit others (5).

Thai people praying in a group. Source: UnSplash, Credits: Hakan Nural

The aspect of joyfulness is also depicted in the five precepts where one states no violence (4) while another one highlights respect for the life of others (5). Similar statements can be found in the eightfold path which states not to use harsh language (4), to not become angry or ignorant (5) and to encourage the right conduct of action (4). Within these statements, one can also find the fundamental characteristics of universality and caring the same for every one (4).

Part of Buddhism is also the four immeasurable minds, which are loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. The call within these is to share compassion and joy and to speak in love (5).

Just as important are the so-called six perfections. These are giving, morality, patience, diligence, mediative concentration and wisdom (5).

Moreover, the four means of embracing are giving, kind words, empathy and altruism which have a big influence within the Buddhist religion (5).

Strongest forces

To sum up what has been said so far, the most important aspects in Buddhism are the concept of Karma, the four immeasurable minds which are loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity, and the four means of embracing which are giving, kind words, empathy and altruism. Looking back, I saw these aspects mirrored not only in the examples I mentioned in the beginning but also in many other encounters. 

Buddhist influence on guest service

Once I started to look into Buddhism I started to almost analyse my encounters with Thai people. Thinking about many situations, I started to link what I have learned about Buddhism to how the Thai people behaved. Being a hospitality student, I started to wonder how this friendliness is expressed in my industry and guest service.

Religion and guest service

While religion, in this case, Buddhism, does not only shapes the culture of the country, it also influences how the host interprets and enacts in hospitality interactions (2). 

Buddhism and Guest service

Within Buddhism, hospitality as its core is seen as part of dāna. This is the act of generous giving (3) and offering something to a guest or stranger (2). This act of giving can either be a non-material giving, where the host offers time and energy, or a material giving of food or drink (3). Under the category of non-material giving, it is also considered important to create a good environment for the host (2).I certainly remember situations where I felt that the other 

Buddhist monks receiving givings. Source: UnSplash. Credit: Daniel Marchal

person was trying to create a good environment or situation for me by making me feel welcome.The professors for example really tried to reassure us that we can follow them and the guest speakers were very eager to make us feel welcome.

This interpretation of hospitality mirrors the four means of embracing mentioned earlier. Under the first one, giving, it is not only important to give something material, but also to give a good feeling. This is certainly supported by the second mean, kind words. I don’t think I remember a single moment where the professor or guest speaker was anything but friendly and supportive. The third one, empathy, is surely important when it comes to creating a good environment. And the last mean of altruism I experienced every time a guest speaker would exceed the set time in order to answer any questions the students had. Even though it surely took some time, people who did not know me at all did their very best to help me out. They were just not there to talk for a set amount of time, but they spent their time with us so that we as students could learn something. 

Next to that is the act of giving as part of hospitality also a chance to practice relinquishment (3) and boost one’s Karma. This goes hand in hand with the Buddhist idea of selflessness (2). In many classes, the speaker went over-time in order to answer all questions from the students. And also the coordinators of my course went the extra mile by organising a rather unrelated event. In order to bring the Thai culture closer, we were invited to a Thai cooking class thought by a proper Thai chef who made green curry, or gaeng kiaw waan, with us.

Thai women praying. Source: UnSplash. Credit: Boudewijn Huysmans

Within a Buddhist society, the act of hospitality is also seen as a part of the social web since offering something is a meritorious deed and a spiritual constructive (3). This might explain why I had the feeling that so many people really enjoy spending their time on us for example.

In Buddhism, being hospitable is generally understood as part of being a good person (3) which might explain why all my encounters felt so welcoming to me.

For Buddhism, the focus of hospitality really seems to lie in treating people well and creating a sense of harmony with and for them (2).

Buddhism in Guest Service 

Bringing up the rear I can only say that one can truly find the four immeasurable minds in Thailand’s hospitality (2). 

Hospitality in Thailand

While I can only talk about hospitality from a limited experience based on my take on Thais’ friendliness, some Europeans also ran into hospitality situations that still left them unsatisfied with the guest service. In the cases, I heard that was because the service was either untrained or just slow when it comes to the serving. The problem might lie in the expectations some have towards the service quality or speed and the fact that speed and quality are of different importance in Thailand in comparison to Europe. Someone from Europe who is now living in Thailand summarised this pretty nicely; with their friendliness, Thai have the perfect precondition for hospitality. And as someone working in hospitality, I think that is a nice sentence to keep in mind when facing guests. Friendliness should always be there as a precondition. Everything else should build on it.

My take in the whole story

At the end of my blog post, I just want to express how wonderful and meaningful my experiences with Thailand and its people have been. I have met amazing people, got new food for thoughts and got to experience a totally new and different culture.

Buddha statue. Source: UnSplash. Credit: Olaf Scheffers

Experiencing and learning about Buddhism

While experiencing and studying Buddhism I can say that this an extremely interesting religion. Personally, I especially enjoyed the non-theistic perspective and the focus on enlightenment instead. While really not claiming myself to be anything close to a Buddhist, I believe that I should try to add at least a few aspects of this religion into my personal life. That might be something to try for many Europeans, especially Germans. 

Professional outlook

Linking all this back to my actual study and future career in hospitality, I would like to highlight the understanding of hospitality as an act of selfless giving with the precondition of friendliness. I hope that in the future I will be able to include the four immeasurable mind and the four means of embracing at least party in my service towards guests.

References

(1) CMRC. (2019, May 23). Thai Cultural Considerations. Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures. https://www.thailandclimbing.com/climber-info/chiang-mai/thai-cultural-considerations

(2) Kirillova, K., Gilmetdinova, A., & Lehto, X. (2014). Interpretation of hospitality across religions. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 43, 23–34. https:// doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhm.2014.07.008.

(3) Munasinghe, S., Hemmington, N., Schänzel, H., Poulston, J., & Fernando, T. (2017). Hospitality: Ideologies, characteristics and conditionality in Theravada Buddhism and Western philosophy. Hospitality & Society, 7(2), 157–180. https://doi.org/10.1386/ hosp.7.2.157_1

(4)Saisuta, P. N. (2012).THE BUDDHIST CORE VALUES AND PERSPECTIVES FOR PROTECTION CHALLENGES: FAITH AND PROTECTION. High Commissioner’ s Dialogue on Protection Challenges, 1–5. https://www.unhcr.org/ 50be10cb9.pdf

(5) Yun, H. (2012). The Fundamentals of Humanistic Buddhism (3rd ed.). International Translation Center. https://www.fgsitc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/A1-The- Fundamentals-of-Humanistic-2019.pdf

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