Thais love business meetings. In fact, they love them so much, at many companies and Thai schools they have them several times a week and sometimes even daily. For the hundreds of thousands of foreigners now working in Bangkok and many other Thai cities, and with more coming every year, having to attend the dreaded business meeting in Thailand can be a real chore.
If you’re about to work in Thailand, teach in Thailand, come to Thailand on business and have client meetings, or are here already but haven’t yet been subjected to a Thai meeting – here’s what to expect.
Thai Meetings Occur Frequently – Unlike in the west, where you might have a business meeting once or twice a month, in Thailand it’s very likely you’ll find yourself sitting in a meeting several times a week. In some companies and schools, even daily.
At the last company I worked at in Thailand, Thai staff complained as they had company meetings two to three times a week and several client meetings every day. With so many meetings, most of them said it was impossible to get the actual work done.
Thai Meetings Are Long – Whereas, in the west, many business meetings are short and get to the point, this almost never happens in a business meeting in Thailand. Meetings are long and, as Thais tend to be quite long-winded, what could be talked about in 15 minutes will take an hour or more.
Be prepared to sit in a meeting in Thailand for much longer than you would in the west, and be prepared to not understand most of it.
Thai Meetings Are Often in Thai – Even in companies where most of the staff speaks English, you’ll still find some meetings are held in Thai, even if there are several Thai non-speakers. I’ve never understood what Thais expect you to get out of a meeting where you haven’t the foggiest idea what’s going on.
At one school I worked at we even had a two-day training session with Thai and foreign staff in the same training. Although all the Thai staff spoke English, and few of the foreign staff spoke any Thai, the two-day training was held entirely in Thai.
Seven hours every day. For two days. At lunchtime of the first day, I have never been so happy to come down with an incredibly bad toothache, and was lucky to be able to go home.
Thai Meetings Involve a Hierarchy – In a business meeting in Thailand, there is a hierarchy. So, if Thais go to a client meeting with a member of staff who is at a higher level than them, even if they have knowledge the higher level staff doesn’t, often they won’t contribute or put forward their ideas as this is thought to be disrespectful.
Even with clients who might need the information, Thai staff won’t say anything. Instead, they’ll wait till they get back to the office and communicate the information to the higher-up, who will then inform the client. Talk about inefficient.
Decisions are Rarely Made – Most of my Thai friends complain that meetings in their companies go on for hours, but there’s never a decision made. Thais are often all talk and little action, with decisions having to be weighed carefully before they’ll actually make one.
Younger Thais, especially those who have been educated overseas, find this incredibly frustrating. In fact, some of my friends are coming up with extravagant excuses to miss business meetings as they are sure they’ll kill someone if they sit in another one where that decision that needs to be made will be lucky to be made by Songkran (the Thai New Year).
If Thais Don’t Understand, They Won’t Tell You – At the Thai branch of a large multi-national company I worked at, one of the owners of the company told me he had sat in a client meeting with a western co-owner and a Saudi client and, in two hours, hadn’t understood more than 20% of what the client said as his English accent was so strong.
But, rather than simply say “I’m sorry, could you speak a little slower, I’m not familiar with your accent”, he sat there for two hours, completely confused, then had to get the co-owner to explain to him what the meeting was about. This from a high-level owner who was incredibly intelligent.
Thais won’t tell you if they don’t understand the subject or don’t understand your accent in a meeting. It’s losing face, and it’s just not done.
A business meeting in Thailand is fascinating to be in, as the human dynamics that go on in them are amazing to watch. Just be prepared, though, they will be long, they’re likely to be dull, the hierarchy will make darn sure nothing gets done, and it will waste half of your day.
But, hey, as the Thais say “Mai bpen lai”. Don’t worry!