Baffled in Bangkok
Your new responsibility is to look after your company’s component purchases in southern Europe. You begin your tour of vendor facilities in Rome, where you are to meet your largest Italian supplier.
Dottore Paolo Verdi’s email said he would meet you in the hotel lobby at 19:30 for a drink before going out to dinner at his favorite trattoria. But it is actually 19:50 before he appears. Dott. Verdi offers you a brief apology and explanation for being late as he joins you at the hotel bar.
What is different about this situation, and why?
Baffled in Bangkok
Solution and Discussion
At a Southeast Asian café some years ago, an old friend stopped at my table to relate the incident captured in this case. “Jane Reynolds,” just returned from a visit to Bangkok, asked if I could explain what happened. What follows here is my explanation.
Clearly some Thai women at the conference had misinterpreted Jane’s body language and tone of voice. Acculturated in an extremely reserved society, these attendees were used to soft voices and restrained body language with few, if any, hand gestures. When Jane waved her arms around to express enthusiasm it startled the Thai participants. Her raised eyebrows and loud voice signaled anger to them.
As if that was not enough, most Southeast Asians tend to feel embarrassed or ashamed when singled out in any group – even for praise. Singapore, a British colony for well over a century before becoming independent, is an exception in Southeast Asia. Thailand on the other hand was never colonized by a European power; its culture has been much less influenced by foreigners. Thus, while Singaporeans have become familiar with Westerners’ strange body language, Thais – especially Thai women – not so much.
Jane did some preparation for her assignment in Bangkok. She however failed to follow up on the hints about Thai women’s shyness, a common feature of emotionally reserved cultures. In terms of nonverbal behavior Jane Reynolds acted like a stereotypically expressive American. Unaware of the difference in expectations and assumptions, she was just as baffled by the Thai women’s reaction as they were by her strange body language.