Hospitality and Manners in Southeast Asia

When tourists first arrive in Southeast Asia, they are often  surprised by the genuine smiles that meets them and most first time visitors are deeply grateful for the friendly welcome and try to reciprocate by honoring local manners and local traditions. However, sadly enough, some realize that they can break rules without any ramifications and immature individuals and/or those scoring high on the sociopmoron3athic spectrum of personality who lack fundamental respect for others are prone to take advantage of the high value that is placed on maintaining harmony and avoiding conflict. It goes without saying that it is really only the immature and rude that feel empowered by thinking that they can get away with everything. Would the individual in this picture approach a government office in his own country in beachwear, despite the dress code clearly posted on the door? The answer is obvious. But let it be clear, just because they can get away with rude behavior doesn’t mean that they get any respect and once they cross that line, things can easily turn nasty, as so many have learned over the years. Unfortunately, those prone to such immature behavior will not be persuaded by arguments and are unlikely to follow the rule that “when it Rome, do as the Romans do”. It is actually not difficult, one can watch how the locals navigate in crowded public spaces, how the locals interact in the market place, and how the locals dress when visiting government offices or shrines.

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Any travel guide to Thailand will mention that head and feet have highly symbolic meanings. There is a prohibition of touching heads of someone, unless one is very close to that person, as this is considered the ‘highest’ part of a person, and the opposite is also true. Pointing feet at someone is considered to be offensive and rude, as this is the ‘lowest’ part of a person.

In Bangkok, a crowded metropolis with more than 12 million people, politeness demands that people try to make others around them feel comfortable by using as little space as possible and allow others to freely navigate. Travel by subway or skytrain and one sees that vast majority of people will tuck their feet under their seats – if they are lucky enough to get a seat.

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Taking up space is a typical expressions of status and power – which may explain the popularity of such behaviors in (macho) cultures that are highly competitive. In Thailand, especially in crowded Bangkok, this will backfire, as it will be viewed as a lack of respect towards one’s fellow human beings. The puzzle really is: what prevents individuals from observing and respecting such obvious local customs that serve to promote social harmony and it is easy enough to understand.