Every now and then I notice little differences between the way the Thai people do things, and the way people do them in the West. Most of these are minor differences—certainly not significant enough to induce a case of that much-overworked term “culture shock.”
You could call them intercultural speed bumps.
As you’re careening through the lush magnificence of Thai culture, they make you slow down and think, “Hello, this is something different.” Here are a few I’ve noticed:
First Come, Last Served.
The Westerner—at least the pre-McLuhanite variety—has a linear mentality. So Western business establishments follow the principle, “First come, first served.”
A clerk in any Western shop will wait on the first customer who requires his attention. Other customers must wait their turn. Only when the clerk has finished processing the first customer’s transaction will he turn his attention to the next customer, who will presumably be waiting at the head of an orderly queue. This practice follows another Western maxim: “One thing at a time.” Not in Thailand.
At my local grocery store, which is run by an overworked Chinese-Thai lady, linear conditioning goes out the window.
I go up to the counter to buy a carton of milk. The lady smiles a greeting and immediately turns to shush a baby who begins to scream in a bassinet beside her. If necessary, she picks the baby up, rocks him in her arms, and croons to him while I’m waiting with my milk. Once she ceases her maternal ministrations, I expect to see some action oil tile milk purchasing ront.
A pair of schoolgirls slip up to the counter with sonic candy, and the lady tots up their bill, takes their money, and wraps the candy. A wholesaler then comes in with an invoice, and she pauses to check the figures and pay him.
By now I’m beginning to tap my foot, because not only is ime a-wasting, but it’s swelteringly hot in the little shop. There’s no fan, and I’m sweating all over my milk.
A gentleman comes up and asks for some detergent from he cabinet behind the counter. The lady takes it out and tells him the price. But he also wants some shampoo, some soap, iind some sugar, and she comes out from behind the counter to collect these items.
By now, there’s a small mob at the counter, all with purchases to be processed; and I, who had fancied I was at the head of the queue—which, by the way, is non-existent—am beginning to loam at the mouth.
In such establishments, the guiding principle is not “First come, first served,” but “Whoever manages to catch my eye gets served until somebody else catches my eye, and then I serve him until yet another customer catches my eye.”
lb the frustrated Westerner, it sometimes appears that a clerk is serving five or six customers at once—with no noticeable progress on any of the transactions.
And yet this system works perfectly well for the Thais, all of whom will be chatting amiably and smiling and turning the occasion into a festive social event. It’s only the grim Westerner who gets annoyed at the delay. This is because he’s not interested in socializing. He just wants to buy his milk and go home. Narrow-minded and hard-hearted fellow! Who knows what fascinating people he might have met, what scintillating conversations he might have enjoyed, what riveting insights he might have attained, if he had just loosened up and been sociable while milling around waiting to have his milk
But in his defense it must be said that it’s hard to be sociable
when you’re perishing from the heat and sweating all over your