Impressive Ability of Thai People to Deal with Ambiguity

Generalizing too much can get me into trouble, and this is particularly true when it comes to labeling groups of people. I’m suspicious when others talk about how the “Americans are like this”, ” the French do that”, or the “the Irish think this”. It is treating a group of people as if they were one and the same, and it is too often based on negative stereotypes and pure ignorance. By assigning a certain characteristic to an ethnic group here I risk making the same mistake, but I don’t mean to cause any offence.


The Thai Ease with Ambiguity

I have come to the conclusion that the average Thai person possesses an ease with ambiguity that those of us from western countries lack. They just seem better able to appreciate the grey areas in life, and so they can avoid dividing everything into black and white (or right and wrong). This is a trait to be admired because as far as I can tell the world is one huge puzzle that we are far from solving. There is a great deal of ambiguity out there if we take an honest look.

Black and White Thinking

Philosophers have suggested that humans need to have strong beliefs – even if those beliefs are ultimately false. Lack of certainty troubles us and it can even lead to insanity, but when we are convinced of our truths it makes us feel all comfy inside. It is this desire for certainty that causes us to cling onto beliefs as if they were life rafts. It is also this that leads us to black and white thinking. It drives us into our little packs of likeminded believers, and we develop an inner conviction that anyone who thinks differently is a threat – the regrettable ‘you are either with us or against us’ mentality that has been adopted by hardcore religious fundamentalists and scientific materialists.

Western philosophy is culturally biased, and I don’t agree that this hunger for certainty is a universal human trait. In my dealings with the Thais I’ve found that they most are perfectly comfortable with uncertainty. They are able to appreciate the grey areas in life. This explains how there isn’t such an outcry against Buddhism when a monk behaves badly. There is an understanding that things in life are not so clear cut – just because there are a few bad apples it doesn’t mean that you need to destroy the whole orchard. This is such a refreshing change from the west where a religion is either ‘ the only true path to salvation’ or ‘the root of all evil’.

This Terrible Need for Certainty

The need for certainty is a curse because it can’t be satisfied. The best we can do is to fool ourselves and hope that we can deal with the doubts as they arise. We have to view anyone who would challenge our beliefs as the enemy because they are undermining all our efforts to hold it together. If only we could embrace the mystery of life and stop pretending that we have all the answers. Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t feel the need to attack other people for their beliefs? In a world of uncertainty it is easier to give other folk a bit of latitude.


Debating with a Thai Can be Difficult

In the past I’ve tried to engage my Thai neighbors in metaphysical debates. I don’t really class myself as a Buddhist (at least not a religious Buddhist), but I have been interested in this philosophy/religion since my early teens. When these conversations with my Thai friends have taken place I’ve sometimes found them to be a bit unsatisfying – although I’ve grown to appreciate this more honest way of communicating. I missed the cut and thrust that such debates have when they occur between westerners – there will always be clashes of opinions. When having the same conversation with a Thai they would hardly ever challenge any of my claims – even the more outlandish ones. Their attitude is usually a respectful ‘maybe’. In the beginning I put this down to the Thai cultural imperative of ‘saving face’, but later I realized that there is more to it than this. They are comfortable with uncertainty, and they don’t need for my beliefs to be wrong so that they can be right.

Dangers of Black and White Thinking

It would be wrong to claim that the Thais have it right about life and the rest of the world has it wrong. It would be fairer to say that each culture has something unique to offer. This means that we can learn a great deal from each other. The dogmatic attitude of the black or white thinker causes a great deal of suffering in the world. It is a mistake we keep on making over and over again. This is what makes it so easy for us to slip from believing in heavenly paradises after death to the belief that we are merely materialistic meat puppets and that life has no purpose. The reality is that there is not enough evidence to support either conclusion, but it doesn’t stop the rise of fanaticism and blinkered thinking. By developing an appreciation of the ambiguity in life it could not only make us more tolerant but it will also bring us nearer to the truth. The universe is one huge mystery and we may not be getting any closer to solving that mystery – maybe this is a possibility that we need to seriously consider.

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11 thoughts on “Impressive Ability of Thai People to Deal with Ambiguity

  1. In my interaction with the Thais I have also realised that whenever they’re not comfortable with the topic discussed or don’t want to get involved in a debate, they revert to the phrase “Leute Khun” which can be translated as “Up to you” or “However you want it.”
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    1. Hi Mihnea, I think that there are some subjects that they are not comfortable talking about. In regards to some of these more metaphysical discussions there has been no reluctance to talk about the subject – just a reluctance to make definitive statements about what is right and what is wrong.

  2. Paul, I agree with Mihnea in regards to แล้วแต่คุณ (it’s up to you). It was used so often I considered designing t-shirts sporting the phrase…and I still use it with Stray, often.

    Do you think that the saving face and kreng jai aspects, of Thai culture is responsibile for some of this ambiguity?

    PS. Any possibility of installing a subscribe to follow up comments widgety thingy?
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    1. Hi Snap, I used to put it down to saving face but over the years I changed my mind. I spent a few years here working as a teacher. One of the schools I worked at was an official Buddhist school – this meant that it had a monk as the headmaster. We would regularly have Christian missionaries standing outside the school handing out leaflets to encourage the school kids to attend their youth group. I thought this was a bit outrageous until I spoke to my Thai colleagues because they had no problem with it. They saw nothing wrong with the students attending this Christian group – instead of viewing it as a threat to their beliefs they saw it as a chance to practice some English. I could give you many more examples like this.

      I can also testify that my Thai wife has a definite ease with ambiguity. When I first came to Thailand I had an idealized image of the Thai monks. I lived in my wife’s village for five years and during that time got close to the monks there. I must admit that on more than one occasion I felt disappointed by their behavior – particularly when one of them bought a motorbike for his girlfriend! I would complain to my wife about how this tarnished the image of Thai Buddhism and we shouldn’t make any more donations to the temple. She saw things completely differently. She honored the robes and not particularly the person wearing them – just because there were bad monks didn’t tarnish the image of Buddhism for her. My wife has not problem accepting that things in life are not black and white.

      I’ll look into adding a follow comments button.

  3. Hi Paul. I’m not sure it is ambiguity at issue here, especially with the examples you give. It is actually possibly the opposite.

    First, let me say that culturally, Thailand has much more uncertainty avoidance than the Ireland or much of the rest of the anglo world. See http://geert-hofstede.com/thailand.html vs. http://geert-hofstede.com/ireland.html

    Second, when Thai’s don’t want to engage in debate or take a position against something, it is generally to avoid uncertainty (and uncertain outcomes). Basically, uncertainty avoidance means a resistance to change. Change can be good or bad, but the ambiguous outcome is desired to be avoided.

    That said, of course there is still a lot of change and in some sense a very ambiguous situation within Thailand if one considers national politics.
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    1. Thanks Jeff, I’ve never heard of Professor Geert Hofstede, but I’m willing to accept that his data is solid. I would be interested to know how this data led him to his conclusions in regards to uncertainty avoidance. I’m also not convinced of his claim that Thai people tend to adhere to ‘strict rules, laws, policies, and regulations’. For example, there is regular commentary in the media on the fact that a high number of Thai people see nothing wrong with cheating if it helps them achieve a goal (I’ve written about this before see here). I also think anyone who is driven on the road here would be surprised at the claim that the Thais tend to adhere strictly to the rules. So his arguments about uncertainty avoidance sound fishy to me.

      I don’t agree that resistance to change (not that I’m fully buying that the Thais are resistant to change more that they want change on their terms) is necessarily evidence that people have a problem with ambiguity. For example, I might be willing to accept that your way of doing things could be better than mine, but I still prefer to do things my own way. In this situation I could be accused of being resistant to change, but it doesn’t mean that I have a problem with ambiguity. Could it not be a group of people who see the world as an ambiguous place might still value the structure and hierarchy in some areas of their life– they accept that the ambiguity is there but they find ways of working with it. This has been my experience when dealing with Thai people – they are willing to acknowledge the uncertainties, but they just don’t make such a big deal out of it.

  4. If it concerns the comprehension of happy living or identity I fully agree with you Paul.
    In more practical matters, ambiguity does not really seem to be a plus.
    Bad safety precautions in Bangkok, reminded me of that. (See here).
    Still, I do get your point and am always happy to gain new insights in the Thai way of thinking.
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  5. Some very interesting points here,
    I too agree that Thais don’t have the same black and white (right and wrong) philosophies/principles that perhaps our more Christian based cultures have had ingrained over the centuries in the Western world.

    Some might argue that the Thais don’t have any morals at all, but i think that’s not true, what they lack in some areas they certainly over compensate in others, and im sure they think the same of us too. Except there are less blacks and whites and more colours to the spectrum..

    I’ve also noticed that even a western claimed atheist would still have Christian morals, even if they didn’t believe in Christianity or the existence of a god any more. They still have that right and wrong complex or theory, which i think maybe still a Christian mindset. except they have taken it unto a new level of believing they are right and god doesn’t exist at all. I actually think Atheism is just another form of Christianity, to be so sure of something, standing in the same ring but at the opposite corner, yet fighting the same fight, such a strong conviction with very little proof to substantiate a claim, however:

    With Buddhism there doesn’t seem to be any ring at all, just a theory and a method, or a few variations. Could it be that this peaceful way of non judgemental religion has seeped deeply into the pores of Thai thinking? I guess one would have to compare other Buddhist countries to make a more substantial claim, but tolerance is certainly the key point to being at ease with ambiguity.

    Perhaps one can also connect an apparent Thai inability to judge/criticise/debate back to the Buddhist foundations which as mentioned have no right nor wrongs but just ripples from the past unto the present and to the future, of good and bad deeds,merits,thinking,saying,doing etc.

    When i was a teacher i used to struggle to get my kids to form the mindset on constructive criticism and healthy debate. It was difficult for them to see any point in it and they didn’t have the ability to challenge what they were being told/taught/brainwashed. Rather than risk tipping the scales of right and wrong Thais very much like to remain in the middle, the ums the ahs the hums. The middle way perhaps?

    Of course there are so many layers to the onion, and if there is one thing iv’e learnt in Thailand this last 10 years, the more we analyse the less we see and the more we look and judge the more infuriating it becomes to stay here, the secret is to let go of it all, and accept this divine comedy for what it is and what it isn’t (reality) or just a fleeting moment of impermanence.

    1. Daniel, I must admit that I’ve shared similar ideas about atheism being similar to Christianity – both of these world views tend to see things in black and white. I also share your philosophy on Thailand. Sometimes it better not to think too much and just go with the flow 🙂 I thing adapting to the Thai way of doing things has actually made me a better person.

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