“Can The Relationship Between You and Your Thai Love Really Work? Or Are You Just Fooling Yourself?”
"In this 7-part series Nathamon reveals the secrets of why some Western - Thai couples enjoy loving, life-affirming relationships -- while others crash and burn in bitterness. Understanding these secrets will give you the keys to unlock true passion and intimacy – and rejuvenate your love life!”
Part 5: The Communication Dimension – What your Thai partner will NEVER tell you
In the last issue, I shared the fourth key to understanding what makes your Thai lady “tick:” You were brought up to value assertiveness, achievement, and competition (more “masculine” values) in the culture you grew up in; she was raised in a culture that values cooperation, harmony, and balance (more “feminine” values). I showed how the contrast in the values you were raised with could present challenges in your relationship because each of you approaches the idea of “achievement” and “success” differently.
In this article, I’m going to get to the heart of the matter – we’re going to talk about the Communication Dimension in your respective cultures, and help you get to the heart of any frustration you might be having in getting your Thai partner to talk about anything important, much less resolve conflict.
I promise that if you can really take in the power of the differences in your communication styles, you’ll be able to transform your relationship. If you can “talk about the way you talk,” you’ll be able to create an atmosphere where both of you can learn from each other, and grow much closer in understanding. And if you’re closer in understanding, your relationship can become much more intimate than you ever imagined was possible.
The Fifth Key: So why the heck doesn’t she just come out and tell me what she wants! (…or…Why is he so confrontational all the time!)
Mark and Jen have been seeing each other for several months. He was initially attracted to her calm, quiet, almost shy personality, finding her very sweet and funny when they were alone together. But he is becoming frustrated at her unwillingness to mingle with his friends. He wants to show her off. He wants them to like her, and he wants her to like them. After all, he’s known many of them since he was a kid. He’s becoming upset at the thought that she is being cool and aloof, not the sweet, funny and charming girl he fell in love with. Mark complains that she just sits there at parties or social events, not saying much, and pretty much avoiding eye contact with anyone.
For her part, Jen is happy that Mark is so generous and kind to her, but she is becoming uncomfortable about mingling with his friends. She complains that Mark’s friends are loud and rude, talking about themselves all the time. And their wives are almost worse…bossy, competitive, and boastful, asking her too many personal questions.
Can this relationship be saved? If Mark and Jen can each begin to understand they come from opposite ends of the communication “context” spectrum, they can explore how best to enjoy themselves when they’re out with other people. Not only that, when they really understand the cultural dimension of Communication, they can build a style of interacting that helps them build the respect, trust, and intimacy necessary for a strong, loving relationship.
Without getting too academic, I can describe the differences between your Western way of communicating and our Thai way of communicating by using the word “context.”
As a Westerner, you’ve been trained to speak your mind, get to the point quickly and directly, and expect that if somebody has something to say, they’ll say it. You rely on words, tone of voice, and gestures to understand what someone is trying to say. If any of those three things is missing or confusing, you’re likely to misunderstand. And if you misunderstand, you’re likely to discuss the misunderstanding directly. Those are all characteristics of a culture based on “low-context” communication.
On the other hand, your Thai lady has been trained to pay attention to another aspect of communication – the background or environment where the communication is taking place. She pays more attention to the situation than to the words, tone or gestures, to understand what somebody is saying. She pays more attention to the “why” behind the words, letting the situation determine what gets said out loud and what doesn’t. Those are characteristics of a culture based on “high-context” communication.
This difference in “context” will definitely show up in your relationship with a Thai lady. You’ll recognize it when you hear yourself complaining about her inability to be direct. Here’s a chart that spells out not only what you might complain about – but also what SHE might complain about – in the way you communicate together.
What’s confusing to YOU
What’s confusing to HER
She doesn’t talk
You talk too much
She won’t talk about herself or her accomplishments
You brag about yourself all the time, to anybody
You can’t tell what she’s really thinking or feeling by the tone of her voice or the look on her face
You are always getting “too excited” when you talk
She is too indirect, and never says what she’s really thinking or feeling
You aren’t careful when you talk, and may be saying too much for the situation
She changes the subject, or doesn’t make sense
You always interrupt
She seldom starts a conversation – and when she does, she is slow to say what she means
You ask too many questions, and don’t give her a chance to talk
You are just filling the air with noise
I want to reassure you that, like the other dimensions we’ve talked about, neither one of you is “right.” The way you were brought up, the values you were taught, and the culture you were raised in shape what feels “right” or “natural” to you. And your Western culture, whether it’s American, British, Australian, or Northern-European, couldn’t be farther on the spectrum from Asian cultures, most especially the Thai culture, when it comes to communication.
For you, listening to the way Thai people interact with each other for the first time, you may think that what is being said is the real message. That’s because that’s “natural” or “right” in your own culture. Your people are trained to be articulate, and rely on words to convey your meaning. When there’s a misunderstanding, you’re trained that more, better, longer words will help the other person understand.
But in Thailand, the words are often the least important part of the message – it’s the environment, or the background against which people are communicating that is most important. And paying more attention to the background is “right” and “natural” in Thailand. Her people are trained that there is no need for lots of words because the people involved in the conversation already understand the situation based on their shared beliefs and perceptions.
Let’s go back to Mark and Jen for some insight. In Mark’s culture, it’s natural and right that people in social settings get to know each other by sharing personal details, asking lots of questions, and expressing and arguing their opinions. Not only that, in your culture people use variations in their tone of voice to carry information like sarcasm, humor, or other emotional content that adds meaning to the message. In Jen’s culture, it’s natural and right that people in social settings respect each other’s privacy, and get to know each other by observing the situation, remaining neutral in voice tone and body language, and letting the situation play itself out.
Who’s right? They both are. That’s the beauty of an intercultural relationship.
So what does this mean to you?
Here’s the bottom line. In your relationship with a Thai partner, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to misunderstand one another. That’s a fact in any relationship. But if you can start to recognize that a lot of your misunderstandings boil down to just a matter of cultural “style,” you might be able to avoid some of them.
As the more “verbal” half of your relationship, you might have to slow yourself down to make this work. Speak more slowly and deliberately. Gently encourage her to express herself, and acknowledge her when she does. After all, she’s lived her whole life in a “high context” culture. When she does open up, listen slowly. Pause. Don’t interrupt. Consider what she’s said carefully before you react to it.
That may sound like you’re going to have to do most of the “work” – but trust me, it’s as hard for her to be open and verbal as it is for you to be quiet and thoughtful!
Next in the series…
Coming in the next issue of the newsletter is our sixth of the cultural secrets that will help you build a strong, loving relationship with your Thai lady: It’s the way your culture differs from hers in your relationship to the importance of time. I’ll show you:
- Why to her, being “late” to an appointment is not that big a deal
- Why it might seem she is too easily distracted to focus on a long-term goal
- Why adapting to her “time orientation” might actually be good for you!
And much, much more