The Thai word Hai-Kiat means to show proper respect, honor and sometimes “giving face” in communications and interactions with Thais. The Kingdom recognizes traditions that have been going on for a thousand years or so, and if a Westerner really wants to develop business and personal relations in Thailand, they should learn some of these traditions. Otherwise a relationship can quickly dissolve, and the “farang” (Western foreigner) is completely baffled about what went wrong.
Outward appearances for a Thai are extremely important. They want to always appear as intelligent, cheerful, polite people, and they do not want others to denigrate that perception in any way.
Hai-kait especially applies towards someone that could be considered senior to you, by age or position, and creating a situation where that person is not looked on in the very best of light.
In America, if a teacher were giving a lecture, students are encouraged to ask questions and throw out odd scenarios that might test the strength of the teacher’s points. In America, that student would probably be commended for the excellent question and deep thinking on the proposition. In Thailand, this action would result in the teacher loosing face and feeling not being fully respected. The student would be regarded as mai hai kiat (literally having no respect, but truly meaning the student is a disrespectful bore). As a general rule, farangs should recognize that in Thailand, there is no such thing as constructive criticism (ever). If your point of correction is essential, it should just wait until the correction is not aimed at the Thai that is speaking. Or done in private later.
Even if your employees or students or young Thai acquaintances make a wrong statement, the farang should be careful in any corrections or criticisms. The Thai will interpret the correction to be a “complaint” about them, and it is common thinking in Thailand that farangs complain too much. Complaints are not well regarded. A correction has to be carefully given as to not point in the direction of any one person.
Sometime hai-kiat is shown in actions or in a stance or a look on your face. Smiles in any situation, even going over a serious problem are essential in the communication. If, for instance, you have a contract that you need your Thai business colleague to sign, and he sits down at the table to sign it, you should not be standing up, towering above him. This is not showing hai-kiat. You should always be on the same level, or if it is possible, even at a lower level. When a Thai woman passes by a man or an older woman, you will notice that they always dip their head low; lower than the other person. This is a reflection of hai-kiat, and for a farang to do it correctly would show great respect and politeness (however, it should not be done towards someone of a lower level than you, like a student or lower employee. That would just reflect your ignorance).
Thai customs may be a challenge for a new American expat in Thailand, but these customs make life in the Kingdom an everyday adventure.
Hopkins book is a clear-eyed, knowledgeable, and insightful look at Thailand by an American who’s lived there for more than a decade. He captures the crazy charm of the place without falling victim to the romantic haze that falls over most first-time visitors. He still loves it – the street food, the elephants, the women, the bars, the temples, the gentle people and sharp operators, the jungles, cities, and beaches and the all-round intensity and color of the place – but also sees many of its failings. Might very well make you consider retiring there.