Most visitors are well aware of certain Thai etiquettes to observe when staying in Thailand. Guidebooks and brochures often mention that body parts such as head, feet, and fingers can create various forms of offensive cultural faux pas. But, in fact, things can get more complicated and lost in translation when it comes to manners. A universal commandment like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” may or may not work in every country because of nuances in customs. How do Thais—let alone visitors—even survive these minefields of manner mishaps?
Good manners are part and parcel of a good education, so most Thais are taught in schools on how to sit, stand, walk, and talk in diverse situations. We even have official contests for students with the most gracious gestures among the schools. These styles of manners, or marayaat, are mainly used in traditional, ceremonial, and very formal milieus. Nowadays however, our daily life has merged with modern technology and “netiquette” is not even known to most people. So what should we do in the real world beyond the classes at a charm school?
To Thais, having good manners means having a sensitive awareness of others’ feelings. When I was a boy scout, there was a song called “Kwam Ghreng Jai Pen Sombat Khong Puudee” (Kwam Ghreng Jai is a Gentleman’s Treasure). Feeling ghreng jai means being considerate to, respecting, and even dreading the feelings of others. In this millennium, do we still feel ghreng jai to others much at all?
A little book called Sombat Puudee (Gentleman’s Treasures) was taught when I was in primary school. Contradictory to how most Thais refer to puudee, this word doesn’t mean high-born or affluent people, but gentlemen and ladies who possess cordial demeanours. Although this book was written in 1912 by M.R. Pia Malakul, or Chao Phraya Visut Suriyasakdi, during King Rama VI’s reign, it is still very applicable to most situations in modern times because its origin lies in the disciplines for Buddhist monks. In its 10 short chapters, it simply covers how to behave properly in physical, verbal, and mental aspects. However, the hardest thing is to control our mind and try not to think inappropriate things towards people who wrong us?
Since etiquette depends on and evolves with culture and society, what is deemed as courteous in one country may shock another. With different customs and protocols, it’s not hard to create some diplomatic gaffes, like the recent incident that Queen Elizabeth II talked about the Chinese diplomats when they visited the U.K. What were these Chinese thinking by being tactless and taking a French leave? In turn, when this phrase is translated in other European languages, it will be “taking an English leave”. Well, I wonder who actually started this bad behaviour.
Interacting through modern media can bring out either the best or the worst in all of us. In the digital age, our fingers tend to trip us along the obstacle course. Boundary issues get blurred when we communicate with others via the mobile phone, online, and instant messaging apps. Lacking our facial expressions, tones of voice, and body language, misunderstandings and misinterpretations can fly out into cyberspace. Our moods and emotional cues become abbreviated into acronyms and emoticons. Technology also coaxes out our over-cultivated self-involvement and megalomaniac tendencies via selfies, oversharing, and over-posting. In the heat of the moment, social code of conduct can disappear into the thin wave of Wi-Fi.
Has civility been decayed in our society? One of the worst cases was recently witnessed when a Thai actor who gravely suffered from serious illnesses and died. Although his family had pleaded for privacy and respect about photographing his body when it was moved to the temple, throngs of media that camped outside the hospital swarmed in like vultures. Déclassé doesn’t even cover this madness. Downright rudeness also sounds too good. Is Miss Manners able to provide some suggestions on how to deal with these challenges?
Like the saying, there is a time and a place for everything, and politeness and poise can work its charms in more ways than one. Having good, respectful, and socially acceptable manners not only conveys respect to those you interact with and also commands respect from them. Civilised manners can help you have better relationships with people around you. Being considerate, respectful, and honest is more important than having a perfect table manner. Social grace may seem like cosmetics, but it also underlies sincerity and good intentions of the action that matter most.
Just remember this: good manners cost nothing. They can even disarm some people’s guard. As Clarence Thomas, an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, said, “Good manners will open doors that the best education cannot.”