All posts by Elizabeth M Laakso

Group Blog — Blair, Crystal, Kellin, & Lizzy

Communication/Human Interaction

Without knowing more than two words in the Thai language, we have gotten pretty creative in the ways we’ve interacted with the locals on this trip. Parallels can be drawn between our interactions with Thai people and concepts outlined in the symbolic interactionism theory. This theory highlights the importance of nonverbal communication just as much as using language in interactions. With the language barrier that exists between the Thai people and us, we have found body language to be very effective in our interactions.

During the homestay, we found it difficult to communicate with the families, as we could not speak the same language. We found that using actions could help us while interacting with our host families. We acted out motions to wash dishes, eat, and determine sleeping arrangements. Although we may have looked foolish, our host mom always laughed and nodded her head as a way of showing she understood. Through our experience at the homestay and other interactions we have participated in with the Thai people, we have learned that smiling, laughing, and thumbs-up go a long way and can be just as significant as verbal communication.

With the nickname, “The Land of Smiles,” how could one not love Thailand? Since we’ve been here, it’s safe to say that we haven’t seen one frown… Or have we? They say that Thai people have 13+ different smiles, some of which are joy, disgust, admiration, disagreement, convenience, etc. These Thai smiles are impossible to detect if you are a foreigner, or farang, but easily readable if you are a native.

As Westerners, we are socialized to always express our emotions outright but as an Eastern, and predominantly Buddhist, culture Thais are socialized to not cause suffering on others, which leads to subtle expression of emotions. An example of this from our trip is when we asked a native Thai if they were at all scared of the government (something that is taboo to talk about here); they answered honestly and said “yes, I am sometimes,” but with a smile on their face. We found it curious how their emotions and facial expression were so contradictory.

Another not so obvious norm of the Thai culture comes from the heavy Buddhist influence. It is the avoidance to not cause others harm of suffering, which was brought up by KK in our monk chat. This is reflected in the many different ways to interpret a smile, as well as the kindness and lack of anger and worry as presented by the people we have come in contact with. When encountered with a problem, we have noticed that improvising comes easily and there is usually a very smooth transition so that we are unaware that a problem ever occurred.

We have noticed this is a very positive light, as everyone wants our group to have the best possible experience. However, this has raised a few questions for us. It can be uncomfortable at times to have someone wait on you so heavily, and go so much out of his or her way to please us. The questions brought up are: how can the people handle so much holding in of emotions, and what possible repercussions might this have?

A frustrating aspect of Thai culture we have encountered is the perceived indirectness and roundabout method of communication within conversations. In the United States, we are socialized to be direct and efficient, especially in business. The more efficient we are the more money we will save and generate. In personal settings, we are taught to be direct and open because it’s seen as dishonest if we don’t. I remember as a child in some of my classes we went around the room and “checked-in” meaning communicated how we were feeling and how we could have a happier day. However, in Thailand and other East Asian countries, the maintenance and furthering of harmony is above individual emotions and feelings. To be direct causes others to lose face.

Thais operate in high-context cultures where previous relationships, non-verbals, established hierarchies and indirect communication shape social cues and communicate individual’s emotions. Americans usually operate in low-context situations where words are taken at face value, everyone is said to be equals, and clarity and preciseness are valued. When these two styles come in contact effective communication can become complicated. While driving around Bangkok with Nicki and Minnie, they were providing information about the surrounding area. I remember driving through what appeared, but I could be mistaken, an impoverished area and Minnie, instead of commenting on the reality of the situations, talked about the harmony between all of the religious groups in Thailand. It was troubling to me hear about this interconnectedness while also witnessing the dire poverty we were traveling through. If we look away from our Western lens, however, Minnie might have been focusing on the peacefulness of groups not because she was unaware or unconcerned about the problems facing Thailand but because talking openly might cause Thais or us to lose face.xP1

Blog Post #2 — Lizzy

An overarching theme that keeps coming to my mind during this trip is the dichotomy between the environment and society. As a Buddhist culture, Thai culture greatly values the natural world and all of its beings. However, I have noticed that in both city and hillside, the filth is exceptional. I wonder where the disconnect is between the Buddhist way of caring for the Earth and the reality of Thai culture’s practice of environmental care.

Something that surprised me is that I have not seen any campaigns or signs for being “green” or environmental well-being like we often see in America. In parallel to the lack of social action, there is very limited infrastructure in place to help promote “green-living.” I have noticed that they only fly large planes here and that they often fly at half capacity. I have noticed that the number of cars and motorcycles/scooters far outnumber the number of bicycles or people walking. I have noticed that the streets are full of trash and that the only cleanly sidewalk that I’ve walked on thus far is our hotel’s.

I think that the lack of environmental effort here is rooted in larger-scale developmental and governmental progress because no country would, or could, prioritize environmental issues over high rates of poverty and homelessness. Lastly, I recognize that my perspective is severely skewed by my privilege of growing up in a country that has the ability to make environmental well-being a priority and that my observations are by no means shaming the Thai culture. I believe that many people are in a position of privilege to help preserve our environment and that we should do everything in our power, so those who are less fortunate can live on the Earth too.


Oddly enough, I haven’t taken any pictures of the filthy streets… So here are some pictures of how beautiful Thailand is (plus me and an elephant)!

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Blog Post #1 — Lizzy

1. Going to the Wat Temple was a great way to be introduced to Thai culture. My experience was very insightful into how respectful and welcoming Thai people are. One thing that stood out to me to be vastly different from the American culture was that Thai culture is very intertwined with religion. Being atheist, I was challenged by the fact that everything we did in the house revolved around the monk and the Buddhist religion. However, I appreciated it because even though I do not hold the same beliefs, the Wat Temple and its people were very warm and welcoming which made it easy for me to respect and honor their beliefs.

I think visiting the Wat Temple before going to Thailand was key to familiarizing me with the Thai culture. If I were to have missed the orientation and just been thrown into the Thailand without knowing how married the Thai culture and the Buddhist religion were, I think it might have been difficult for me to adapt. Now that I have a sense of what to expect, I can be less apprehensive and more excited for the transition.

2. I have many learning goals for myself in regards to this learning abroad experience but the main one is to mature and have a better understanding of another culture. I have always appreciated and embraced diversity but I believe that immersion is the only way to truly learn and understand another culture and another person’s perspective. During this learning abroad experience, I hope to be challenged by the cultural differences because I think challenges help one mature, expand horizons, and learn more about oneself.

3. This is me.