Several months ago, I was brought into a project in a high-end hotel in Bangkok that was a couple of months away from completion. Right now in Thailand, the labour market is flooded and finding internationally minded service staff with sufficient English language skills is not an easy task. In order to ensure that the English level of the staff would be up to par, as well as technical skills and knowledge, the client decided to bring in around 70% of the team from India. The manager was brought in from India and he subsequently was responsible for interviewing and hiring around thirteen other team members from India and Nepal.
Like Oil and Water
All seemed well – until the week before opening where almost the entire Thai contingent of the team resigned. In shock, the management team needed to act quickly and hire more locally engaged staff. They did so, and filled the vacant positions with a combination of Thai and Filipino staff that were already living in Bangkok. As with the first group of Thai team members, within days of opening, the new group of Thais were not happy working with their Indian team members. There was constant friction and fighting occurring between staff – so much so that many of the Thai team members were threatening to resign. What was happening? The Indians that were hired were bright, enthusiastic, had fire in their belly and were eagre to do the best that they could do and hone a career path for themselves from this opportunity. What was it that was causing so much tension with the local team members that drove them to the point of wanting to quit?
From the Horses Mouth
In Thailand, the concepts of political correctness, racism, discrimination and equal opportunities are very different from those same concepts in the west. I was called in to help diagnose what was going on, and facilitate a solution. I had a gut feeling that I knew what was going on, but rather than me telling the Indian team, I decided to do it a little differently. I scheduled a half-day workshop with all of the Indians and Nepalis to discuss what was going on and how we might look at fixing the situation in the workplace. To prepare for the workshop, I put a survey out online and made it available to the Thai public via Facebook. The survey results were collected, translated and I presented the data to the staff during the workshop through several activities, each one building on the last with the goal of deepening their understanding of their Thai team members’ culture and more importantly, deepen their understanding of how Thais perceived who they were.
If You See a Snake and an Indian …
As mentioned previously, Thailand has a very different understanding of political correctness and often blanketing stereotyping terms are used to refer to different groups of people. Sometimes determined by the country of one’s origin, sometimes determined by the colour of one’s skin. While the term used for western, Caucasian foreigners is ‘Farang’ ฝรั่ง, there is another term reserved for non Western, non Asian, non African people. That term is ‘khaek’ แขก. What does ‘khaek’ mean to a Thai? What exactly is a Khaek? You can see from the results that a ‘Khaek’ in the eyes of a Thai can cover anyone from India or the sub-continent, anyone with Indian looking features, all Muslims, Middle Easterners, Malay and Indonesians and subsequently many Southern Thais, possibly Mediterranean looking people and sometimes even people from Africa. There are ‘black’ or ‘dark’ khaek and ‘white’ or ‘light’ Khaek’. Trying to explain that an Indian is not the same as a Pakistani or Nepali or even Malay to many Thais might be futile. In the eyes of many, ‘Khaek is Khaek’. It is harsh. It is very politically incorrect, but it is a reality that must be accepted and worked with for anyone living and working in the kingdom. The following are some of the highlights of the report resulting from the survey. These results are very telling and the Thais didn’t hold back. Through understanding the way that the Thais anticipated the Indian team to be like, and then with those filters in place, understanding how they might react to the team, the Indian or ‘Khaek’ team members would hopefully be able to make some adjustments to make themselves more palatable to with their Thai colleagues.
After presenting the information contained in the below report to the workshop participants gradually through discussion and activities, they accepted it and took it all on board with a surprisingly positive attitude. Many of the issues had to do with hygiene, deodorant, the tendency to argue and in Thais’ point of view, cause others to lose face. Where Thais might have a tendency to avoid conflict, it seemed to the Thais that the Indians actually proactively sought conflict. Aside from discussing cultural issues, in the workshop we also covered several language points and I highlighted similarities between the Indic language systems and Thai and showed some shortcuts that the Indians could use to accelerate their learning of Thai. While many of the opinions expressed in the results that I have included below are stereotypes, the fact is that in Thailand, many of these stereotypes are programmed into Thais from an early age and many will express these ‘opinions’ with knee-jerk fervor even if they personally may not have had such experiences with Khaek. I went back the week after the workshop and spoke with several of the Thai team members at different levels of the organization and it seems that there were real changes that had taken place. They said that the Indian team members were much more pleasant, didn’t have body odour anymore and they were pleasantly surprised when the Indians would greet them each day in Thai and even ‘Wai’, which is the Thai style bow with clasped hands in front of the body.
While a nice notion, sometimes it just may not be practical to apply western principles of political correctness and compliance in local workplaces across Asia. Both the corporate and national cultures are very different and sometimes things need to be communicated very bluntly before a company incurs too much loss. Facing the reality and accepting that as foreigners, you can’t change something even though you think it might not be correct is the first step in building a much more harmonious team. I have left the online survey open and can be accessed here. To be fair, it is not just Indians that cop the brunt of Thais’ ire from time to time. There are several groups of people where their collective name has embedded within it deep seated emotions, both positive and negative. I am currently running a similar survey for a much larger group – ‘Farang’ ฝรั่ง. If you are Thai, you can access the survey here and add your response. I will be sharing the results of this survey once we have enough results in. Below are the survey results for for the ‘Khaek’ (Indian) survey. I still have that survey open online and will update it when a significant number of new entries come in. Thais can access the ‘Khaek’ survey here.
The survey questions were as follows:
- What does the term ‘Khaek’ แขก mean to you?
- When you see a Snake and a Khaek, ________ (Complete the sentence).
- From the countries below, which ones would you associate with the term ‘Khaek’? (See results for countries listed – note this is not an exhaustive list of ‘Khaek’ related countries)
- What advice do you have for any foreigners coming to work with Thais?
- Are there any experiences with ‘Khaek’ that you would like to share?
These results are taken from 25 respondents. The figures would change as the respondent pool grows, however looking at the results, the important facets of the term ‘Khaek’ are sufficiently revealed. Please note that the views represented in this report are not those of the report author.
Question 1 – What does the term ‘Khaek’ แขก mean to you?
Question 2 – If you see a snake and a ‘Khaek’, … (Complete the Sentence)
Question 3 – What countries from this list would you associate with the meaning of ‘Khaek’ (แขก)?
Question Four – What advice do you have for any foreigners coming to work with Thais?
(Please note that these responses are not in any particular order).
- If you make Thai people lose face in public, you better watch your back.
- Don’t think that you are better than everyone else. Don’t think that you know everything – there is no way that you can know everything. Learn how to respect the people that work alongside of you.
- These are the behaviours Thais see in foreigners and hate: Nitpicking Stingy Want to win at all costs Don’t want to give an inch if they can help it Pay as little as possible but demand too much both in business and in service that they expect to get If they start to get like that, they can just go somewhere else for all I care.
- Study Thai culture and the Thai people in general first. Understand that there are different levels in society as well as the people in society that you cannot discriminate against.
- Foreigners need to with an open mind, learn about Thai culture. The reality is that most Thais are very easy going. We don’t sweat about every single Baht in a deal. We won’t make a fuss about one or two baht. If we see someone who does, it creates a bad impression. What I have observed of ‘Khaek’ kind of culture and attitude towards money and business doesn’t really go well with the Thai way of doing things and behaving towards each other. This fact could cause a rift when doing a project or business between Thais and Khaek, causing a bad result on the project.
- When in Rome, do as the Romans do. (” เข้าเมืองตาหลิ่วต้องหลิ่วตาตาม “) Make sure you learn and follow the culture and customs of the place that you are in.
- Foreigners need to understand Thai culture properly. They need to actually understand what interests and motivates Thais and what doesn’t. This will help them work together much more. Language also plays a role and will help build a positive attitude. If foreigners can actually speak Thai and communicate more effectively, they will then be able to explain things in a manner that matches with Thai culture and Thais will listen more. Thais will also understand more easily and the result will be much better.
- Be open minded and sincerely learn about Thai culture. As Thais, we can’t accept dishonesty or deceitful behaviour.
- Don’t look down on Thais and don’t think that you are smarter than them. Many Khaek like to take advantage of their Thai friends.
- Learn about Thai culture before you move to Thailand and don’t just think that because someone doesn’t say something they are stupid. Often it is the person who feels he needs to say something or be the loudest in the group that is the most foolish.
- I love Khaek that come here and know how to be humble and generous.
- Don’t think that Thais are lower than you / don’t disrespect Thais.
- Don’t shout. Don’t raise your voice at anyone.
- Understand that Thais love to gossip.
- Be honest and patient when working with Thais.
Question Five – Are there any experiences with ‘Khaek’ that you would like to share?
- So many times where body odour has caused serious issues. Their body odour stinks to inexplicable proportions.
- I have so many stories. It all comes down to understanding and respecting Thai culture. Sure, they may not understand it, but over time they need to make an effort to learn and show that they are willing to adjust.
- I had some bad experiences with Arabic people because of the wrong stereotypes taught by Thai society that they are dishonest and untouchable. I’ve experienced myself with some Arabs who drank beer and ate pork in Thailand, but again it cannot reflect the whole population of Muslim people.
- India is most racist country in the world period!
- They are not responsible for their own actions and instead get angry at their employees. They do this despite the fact they aren’t doing their own job properly. Working in hotels, I see many come in and blatantly lie saying that they had stayed at our hotel before in a previous month, or their friend had stayed here before and the price was much cheaper. We know our guests and we have never seen these people before. They are obviously lying just to try and bargain the price down. Their first instinct is to shake their head saying ‘No’ before even listening.
- Even after bringing the price down to half the original price, they will still ask so many questions about the rooms “Is there air-conditioning? Breakfast? A Pool? Internet? Can I bring other friends in to stay too? How far is it to ___? What else is there in the room? Is the water the guests or do we have to pay for it? Can I try the food? Can you discount the price even more?” – even after they know these things already. In particular, the Pakistanis have the worst body odour (armpits) that I have ever smelt from anyone. 98% of the Iranians I see have a pungent smell and they like to wear fluorescent coloured tank tops and shorts with sneakers and high socks. Indians like to chew on Beetle Nut or something – when they speak it’s like they’re sucking on something, and it drips down on their teeth. They love to always ask for more and more discounts to the point of having to tell them to get out and go somewhere else. When they see a good looking girl, they’ll stand there with their fat belly hanging out and fold their arms resting on their big guts, unashamedly checking the girl out from head to toe.
- I have had my own experience with ‘Khaek’ that involved Muslims and the freedoms that they allow (and don’t allow) women. Muslim men believe that they have authority over women and they are the decision makers. In a work environment, this is very problematic as female team members will feel reluctant then to offer up their opinions or suggestions if Khaek males are present as they know that the men will almost certainly find some reason to oppose the female’s views.
- Khaek in general have very bad body odour, they are selfish and stingy – note, those are only the ones directly from India. The ones born in Thailand are fine.
- Too many to count.
- Have too many bad experiences.
- I have been cheated by Khaek taxi drivers in the past.
- I have met with many good Khaek, but some are very selfish. For example, if they have to choose between getting something done, they will always choose the thing that they benefit from first before others. As far as money is concerned, when it comes down to squabbling over just a few baht, they need to learn to just let it go. Seeing some khaek being so precise with counting every baht and every satang leaves a bad taste in Thais’ mouths. Sure, they might be entitled to ‘every satang’, but there are some things that you ‘can’ do, but you just don’t. If you compare this to say Chinese people or other nationalities that come and do business in Thailand or buy things here, if it was just an issue of a few baht, they wouldn’t fuss about it.
- From my experience, Khaek have very bad body odour and like to butt in.
- I see that many Khaek look down upon Thai women and don’t respect them especially in the way that they speak to them.
- I once bought some fabric at a ‘khaek’ owned shop. The first day the Thai employee told me to take the swatch samples for free as they are free to everyone in the business. Another day when I went back, only an Indian employee was in. He said he would ‘sell’ me the very same swatch for a ‘special price’.
- I once stayed at a hotel owned by Khaek with Khaek employees. While I was out of the room, they came in and just took my router out of my room and gave it to another guest because the other guest’s router was broken.
- In my experiences, it seems that Indian men don’t respect women at all. They look down on them and just stare at them like they are a piece of meat – it is as if noone had every taught them simple human manners of respect.
- In respect to language, I have found that many Indians believe that their English is better than any other speakers of English. The truth is that their accent is much more difficult to understand than other native speakers of English. Then, as Thais if we communicate to them that we don’t understand what they are saying, they will then start thinking that we are / and calling us ‘stupid’. In respect to dishonesty, we find that most Indians will try and rip you off in business and be dishonest about prices as well as blatantly take advantage of people.
- There are so many stories, but in general they are in the genre of even after negotiating something, the negotiation still isn’t finished and they will still ask for more just for the sake of winning.