How to navigate through the strict Thai hierarchy

Recently I have been learning more about Thailand and the Thai culture. Thailand has a very rich culture that stretches from religious aspects like Buddhism and Tom Kha Kai as part of its delicious cuisine. However, social hierarchy is also a huge part of Thai culture. I knew hierarchy plays a bigger role in Asian countries like Thailand and less in countries like Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and the country I was born in, the Netherlands. It surprised me in how many aspects of Thai life you can find hierarchy. It can be found in the beautiful but difficult to learn the Thai language, in relationships between students and professors, between employees and employers, and in Thai families. This blog will look into social hierarchal structures in Thailand. So what does hierarchy mean? Hierarchy is ”a system in which people or things are arranged according to their importance”. This is important to keep in mind.

Janteloven – Scandanavian Standard

As someone who grew up in a country that is known for its flat hierarchal structures, I was surprised and perhaps a little bit shocked at how big of a role hierarchy plays in Thai culture. To put things in perspective, when I was younger, I found out about the Laws of Jante written by the Norwegian author Axel Sandemose which he created in his fictional book A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks. In this book, he created a set of ten rules and these rules became part of a social code in Scandinavia. You can find traces of this set of social rules in Scandinavian culture. These ten rules are:

  1. Don’t think you are anything special.
  2. Don’t think you are as good as we are.
  3. Don’t think you are smarter than we are.
  4. Don’t convince yourself that you are better than we are.
  5. Don’t think you know more than we do.
  6. Don’t think you are more important than we are.
  7. Don’t think you are good at anything.
  8. Don’t laugh at us.
  9. Don’t think anyone cares about you.
  10. Don’t think you can teach us anything.

This set of social rules, also known as Janteloven, has been a big influence in my life, and even when I only partly agree with it, I still believe humility is an important characteristic. This is Westerner’s view, of course. Let’s look at the Thai hierarchy in depth.

Social hierarchy in Thailand

Dr. Larry Persons, who has a PhD in Intercultural Studies, explains (in this video) Thai culture to people who are not familiar with the Thai culture. In this video, he talks about the fact that social hierarchy is engrained within Thai society. Two sayings he discusses are ‘’you must recognize low and high, know your place in hierarchy’’ and ‘’know how to show proper respect’’. He continues to discuss that Thai people are always very aware of their position in social circumstances. Two people from Thailand are never exactly equal and this is because of certain factors that determine someone’s social status, for example, family name, royal titles, social class, wealth, education pedigree, gender, skin color, ethnic background, official position, employers’ prestige, and social and professional connections.

I know that hierarchy plays a role in my country as well, as it does everywhere, but not to the extent of hierarchy in Thailand.

Social family in Thai hierarchy

Family is a very important factor in Thai culture. Some may even consider it the foundation of social life in Thailand. The concept of family in Thailand is wide and inclusive. Immediate family is the core of a household. However, it can also include extended family, or neighbors and friends close to the family. Therefore, family is a stretchable concept.

What does a Thai household structure look like?

There is a certain structure in Thailand when it comes to family. Most households are patriarchal, so authority is held by the oldest living man. In some situations, it is possible that more than two generations live in the same house. This means that grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other siblings live under the same roof and might all be raising a child in the household. Furthermore, it is completely normal for newlyweds to live with their family until they have their own children. Also, it is considered to be normal that pregnant women move back in with their family or invite future grandmothers to move in with them.

A grandmother and her grandson – Tasty Thailand

Within this family household structure, a Thai person must have a high level of respect for his or her parents and other elderly within the family and this can be seen in Thai etiquette and social interactions with the elderly. Thai people usually have a sense of duty and responsibility regarding their elderly and younger generations in the family should often listen and use advice and requests by older generations within the family. When it comes to dating and marriage, it is usually the case that one person should meet and get familiar with the other person’s family before getting approval for marriage, but this differs per area in Thailand. In Bangkok, for example, there is a sense of Western behavior when it comes to dating. In rural areas, it might be more traditional. Thai people usually have quite a lot of freedom when it comes to choosing a partner, but this can be influenced by the family’s preferences.

Social hierarchy in the Thai language

In Thailand, familial words are frequently used to refer to other close members of the community and to convey both closeness and respect. For example, Thais commonly use ‘phi’ for when someone’s older as them like an elder sibling, and ‘nong’ to imply affection for someone younger. Furthermore, Thai people address each other by their first and not by their surname. The word ‘khun’, which in English means Mr, Mrs, or Ms, can also be used instead of ‘phi’ and is put in front of the name as an honorary term. The higher your status is, the more the words used to describe you are respectful.

This Thai language etiquette is something every Thai-speaking person knows very well. It can be seen everywhere, from school halls, shops, restaurants, newspapers, and other media. The pronouns used in Thai language, should be learned, remembered, and used in social interactions by any Thai, whether they like it or not.

Thai newspapers - 2Bangkok.com

Thai newspapers – 2Bangkok.com

Social hierarchy in Thai companies

Another aspect in Thai culture, where you can find a form of social hierarchy, is in Thai business environments. Also here everyone employed at a certain company knows his or her place. According to Tasty Thailand, there are different levels within a company when it comes to staff hierarchy. The lowest level of employees consists of maids and maintenance. These lower levels are in service of higher-level management in the form of keeping things clean and bringing food among other things. In certain Thai companies, this level of employees is treated with dignity and respect and in some, they are not. Then you have secretaries, upper management and, top management. The higher someone is on a level, the more they are spoken to and about with respect. You could say they are revered within the company. For upper management and top management people will use the words mentioned before ‘phi’ and ‘khun’ to show the utmost respect. It is, of course, possible for lower-level employees to climb up the social ladder and gain a higher-level position.

Is traditional social hierarchy changing?

As you can see anywhere around the world, countries are modernizing, and traditional norms and values are slowly fading. In Thailand, this is no different. People sometimes no longer live with their family for a big part of their life but tend to move out for work or other reasons. In marriage and dating in Thailand, you can see that things are in motion. As mentioned before, in rural areas dating tends to be more traditional, but in urban areas like the cosmopolitan city of Bangkok, you can see a Western influence in dating. However, a lot of Thais will continue to live with their family and when it comes to dating and marriage, the family of a Thai person still has a big influence. Culture is fluid and changes over time, but it doesn’t change that quickly, but you can see changing cultural aspects if you look closely.

Protesting students - Thai PBS World

Protesting students – Thai PBS World

A westerner’s view on social hierarchy in Thailand

I always try to understand a culture and try to see it from their perspective, but I will always have a Western influence on how I see other cultures. I will never see another culture as negative, but I do think that culture shouldn’t restrict people from being themselves and becoming what they want to become, and I do get the feeling that this system of social hierarchy does not encourage people to become their best selves. As I stated before in other words, culture is fluid. This can be seen in student protests where young people challenge the system of social hierarchy. I think this is only natural to such a traditional culture. On the other hand, an advantage is that it is very clear where you stand in society. You could say Thai culture a double-edged sword.


References

Aurell, B. (2021, December 10). The Law of Jante – explained. ScandiKitchen. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://www.scandikitchen.co.uk/the-law-of-jante-explained/

BKK. (2021, July 16). Thai Hierarchy [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=neMIReIbMts

Cultural Atlas. (n.d.). Thai Culture. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/thai-culture/thai-culture-family

Directory. (n.d.). Thai Culture – Do’s & Dont’s. Thai Culture Directory. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://immigrationbangkok.com/thai-culture-dos-donts/

Maneechote, P. (2020, April 15). How Thai language reinforces hierarchy and perpetuates social divides. Thai Enquirer. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://www.thaienquirer.com/8487/how-thai-language-reinforces-hierarchy-and-perpetuates-social-divides/

Norman, R. T. (2020, June 28). What is Janteloven? The Law of Jante in Scandinavian Society. Scandinavia Standard. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://www.scandinaviastandard.com/what-is-janteloven-the-law-of-jante/

Rawnsley, J. (2021, October 7). How “Bad Student” is challenging authoritarian rule in Thailand. New Statesman. Retrieved March 22, 2022, from https://www.newstatesman.com/world/asia/2021/10/how-bad-student-is-challenging-authoritarian-rule-in-thailand

Tasty Thailand. (n.d.-a). How Does Hierarchy Work in Thai Companies? – Tasty Thailand. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://tastythailand.com/how-does-hierarchy-work-in-thai-companies/

Tasty Thailand. (n.d.-b). Thai Family Values and How They are Different From Western Ones – Tasty Thailand. Retrieved March 17, 2022, from https://tastythailand.com/thai-family-values-and-how-theyre-different-from-western-ones/

 

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