the missing sense of urgency in thailandLiving 

The missing sense of urgency & how to work with it

“What is the one thing that makes Thailand so different to your home country?” – That’s a question I hear on an almost weekly basis. Be it in interviews, conference appearances, classes or sport events. The expected answer is ‘the food’ or ‘the weather’ or ‘the friendly people’ or even ‘the culture’ in general. And while all of that is true to some extend those are all things that I was prepared for and that I was able to adapt to without much of a problem. One cultural aspect that still sticks out however is something that a friend called ‘the missing sense of urgency’. When thinking more about it I would say that this missing sense of urgency is one of the most defining traits here in Thailand that makes life so different to life back home and that is something many people need to learn to understand since, if you don’t understand it, you will start to complain and get frustrated.

I‘m here to prevent that. You’re welcome ;-)

Missing sense of urgency

So what does this ‘missing sense of urgency’ now actually mean? It is not that nothing is urgent here. In fact, everything always seems to be urgent. And that already shows where the problem originates. Unless something is ‘really urgent’ it won’t be considered worth being done and with everything becoming urgent in order to be considered being done urgency itself loses its meaning which then leads to even urgent things taking lots of time since everybody knows that everyone is always faking urgency.

Did I lose you there? 

Alright, let’s break it down a bit more. Some time ago I talked about “Thailand and the perception of work” on this website. This article scratched a bit on the topic we’re trying to understand today. The aforementioned article explains the ‘sabai sabai’ attitude here in Thailand (if this is new for you, check out the article) and highlights how this influences daily tasks and interactions. Knowing what sabai means and how it is a crucial part of daily life helps to understand how urgency went missing in the land of smiles.

If you think closely about it, Thailand is not the only country in the world to take a more ‘liberal’ approach towards time and urgency itself. There are lots of countries that are said to be ‘slow’, ‘polychronic’, or from a German point of view: ‘lacking efficiency’.

So the principle of taking things a bit easier is nothing new. The way this is being embraced here, while excessive, is also well documented (e.g. in the best selling book ‘working with the Thais’). Just because something is well known, documented and considered as somewhat ‘normal’ doesn’t mean it is good or it couldn’t be approved upon though.

“Just do it like us!”

With that in mind (that this situation could be approved upon) many expats, at one point, fall back into the ‘just do it like us back home in *insert super mega awesome home country here* – it all works better there’. When you’re being honest, you know that things like that never work. It didn’t work back then when your parents asked you to be more like your ‘good’ sibling, and it won’t work when you tell a whole society to change and become more like people from another cultural background. You were unique back then (and still are now), so are the people here (and everywhere else).

“But it would make sense for them to change” I hear you say. Right. It would also make sense for Americans to start using the metric system but are they gonna do it just because the rest of the world would think that would be ‘reasonable’? No. Why not? ‘Cause their ‘system’ works for them. Same with the Thai system of doing business or living life in general. It, somehow, works. It’s not the most efficient, fastest, or what most of us foreign smart asses would consider ‘best’, way of doing things, but it’s the way life works here and you either understand it, or end up being frustrated.

How to get things done

Now, after all of those ‘do not do this and that’ tips above you might wonder ‘how do i get things done then?’. Well, my young Thailand Padawan, do not quail as I am here to guide you via 5 tips that will help you to get stuff done in Thailand.

5 tips to get things done in Thailand

  1. Learn the language & culture. That’s obvious but still many of us expats (me included) suck at Thai. The better you speak the language, the better you can make yourself understood and the better you understand your (business) partners. So don’t be a lazy ass, learn the language. There are so many youtube channels and apps that could help you to learn Thai. Just do it. In addition the same goes for the culture. You don’t even need an app for that. Learn how and when to ‘wai’, take your shoes off when appropriate and understand the concept of seniority here in Thailand.  It’s not that difficult, is it?
  2. Read this article and understand that you won’t change a whole culture. Don’t try to go all missionary (yes I said that, stop giggling) and to convert the whole country to the ‘western’ style of doing things. First respect the different culture, then understand it, then use it.
  3. Be friendly, patient & persistent. If you need to get things done, persistence is important. As mentioned in this article urgency is a rather abstract concept here so you have to make sure to always keep pushing (in a very polite, friendly and patient) way for your task to get done. Always use small talk along with inquiries, laugh with the people that you affiliate with, meet them for lunch or cafe, talk about life, food and the weather and then, eventually, about what you need to get done.
  4. Show appreciation. No, that is not bribing. If someone does something for you rather fast or well or just in a manner that makes you consider continuing a business relationship, show your appreciation. That doesn’t mean you have to give everybody 2,000 THB (that’s only at the immigration :P #joking) but maybe think about sending a nice thank you or happy holiday card, bring some snacks from your home country, or go to their kid’s school show. Showing appreciation goes a long way. Even further than back home.
  5. Don’t be an ass. Well that goes without saying and should apply everywhere but ‘back home’ we often forgive business partners for being jerks. Here that’s a bit different thanks to the approach as explained in the text above. If you behave like an ass, don’t expect to be called again or considered for future business.

If this article is helpful, please feel free to share it with your friends, colleagues, etc. – if you think I missed something please shout out in the comments as I’d be happy to learn from your experiences!

Sascha Funk

Founder / Editor at My-Thai.org
Sascha is the publisher of my-thai.org and switched from an online marketing agency life in Europe to a teaching and education life in Thailand. He also writes about Teaching & Technology.

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