The phrase just popped into my head one day, and it suddenly seemed to explain everything about Thai culture that I just couldn’t get my head round. I just couldn’t work out how with all that smiling and niceness that people just didn’t go mad and explode with rage. Well maybe they do and it’s classic passive aggressive behaviour.
First of all, what is passive-aggressive behaviour? It’s when you aren’t able to tell someone that you are not happy with a situation, but instead, suppress your feelings and use indirect behaviour to express them. It is often a result of oppression or of lacking in the social skills to assert yourself. Examples of passive-aggressive indirect behaviour are sulking, making excuses (e.g. finding another reason why you can’t do something you don’t want to do), blaming (my girlfriend wants me to go home, when really the boyfriend wants to) and delaying so that you miss or are late to an event you don’t want to attend. We all do this to some extent to avoid hurting people’s feelings, but genuine passive-aggressiveness is when it is done persistently, over and over again.
Most people would agree that Thai culture, like many other Asian cultures, has a strong element of ‘holding things in’. The concept of ‘face’ – avoiding conflict, not embarrassing or blaming others.If someone does something wrong, the correct response from the ‘victim’ of the wrongdoing is ‘mai pen rai’ – it doesn’t matter. The idea of ‘kreng jai’ (hard to explain briefly but ‘not causing discomfort’ pretty much sums it up) – if someone does something that you don’t like, you hope that they will not do it again rather than complaining. Are Thai people psychic??!!
Wow, it would have helped to know this when I met my husband! It took me years to work out why he would never say sorry – he just didn’t feel at fault when he did things that annoyed me and just didn’t have that automatic response of ‘sorry’ for every little thing that displeased me. And got annoyed when I got angry with him about things he’d done wrong.
Obviously there are lots of passive-aggressive people in the west, and in the UK we are known for repressing our feelings and not being direct but the repression of feelings here in Thailand makes us look positively open. And in modern British culture at least, we accept that it exists but it is not considered a mature way of behaving. Our response to problems is to communicate openly and try to come to a compromise. To accept that sometimes we won’t get our way but sometimes we will. Here in Thailand it seems that the same people get their own way all the time – the elders, the superiors, the men – whereas those sometimes great ideas and suggestions of the young, the subordinates, the women – are ignored simply because of who suggested them.
An aunt keeps borrowing money from her family and doesn’t always pay it back…instead of sitting down and talking about how they can help her (not just by lending money but maybe be helping her budget or set up a business) the family decides to send some bitchy texts around to literally everyone but her…of course she sees them and goes mad. Eventually she forgives them, they lend her money and so the story goes on. Does anything get resolved? No. But I’m sure they’re still seething underneath as they hand over the cash. A situation of (female) infidelity results in the friends of the guy she cheated on getting a gun and planning to threaten the guy she cheated with. T telling his family that I want to go home early, when actually he wants to so he can go out with his mates (his family must seriously think I’m unsociable!). The girlfriend who sits alone, not speaking to anyone all night (thank goodness someone invented smartphones – who knows what they did before!) waiting for her boyfriend to finish drinking and chatting with his mates. Personally, if I go out with T, I expect to have a good time, enjoy myself and chat to people and if I don’t feel like doing that I just go home early or don’t come out, rather than sitting there miserably, willing every whisky and soda to be the last.
I guess all this ‘face-saving’ is what leads to the gossiping and bitchiness (again I know it happens everywhere but the amount here is unbelievable and is considered more ‘normal’ and less offensive than it is at home). People can’t say what they think to someone in public but they can vent their thoughts and feelings in private (though of course it doesn’t remain private and spreads like wildfire!). The moment I got here I heard how X was so rude and Y was so lazy and A was so tight and B was so bad with money. So it wasn’t a surprise that I would be the topic of conversation on many occasions, especially with my ‘different’ ways. More on that story another day…
Funnily enough I am actually a pretty passive-aggressive person. I’ve never been that confident about asking for what I want in case the answer is ‘no’ – I’ve always sought the approval of others and don’t trust in the fact that they will like me as I am. But my passive-aggressiveness seems to manifest itself in a different way to Thai passive-aggressiveness so it doesn’t really help. Plus the fact that it’s something about myself that I want to and am trying to improve. And how do we improve things? In the west we tend to use open communication: telling each other how we feel and what we want (of course we use little white lies so as not to hurt people too but on the whole we are open). This works about 50% of the time for T and me, which, I guess, is a bit of a result! Half the time we end up with a bit of a revelation and a greater understanding of each other. The other half of the time it descends into a shouting, screaming , slanging match resulting in tears and sulking. We’re working on it and we both enjoy the feeling after we have gained a new understanding of each other.
T told me recently that he hates ‘giving bad news’ – a good example is telling me he’s going to be back late when he’s out drinking with his friends. It’s not unusual for Thai people to sit up drinking all night until the sun comes up – it’s a hot country and until the invention of aircon that was the coolest place to be. As a western woman I want to have an idea what time my husband is going to be back. When we had a chat about it he said he hated saying he didn’t know when he’d be back or that he’d be out for another 3-4 hours, so he’d say something like ‘one more glass’. Of course that one more glass turned into two more, then three more then probably ten more! In the meantime I’d be texting him every hour to say ‘are you coming back soon?’ or ‘it’s 5am, when are you coming?’. He’d then send another text saying ‘I’m leaving in 10 mins’ which of course didn’t mean that at all but was just another delaying tactic. So I’d be at home getting worked up and unable to sleep and thinking ‘why does he keep breaking his promises’ and he’d be out with his mates thinking ‘why does she keep bugging me’ and when he realised I was starting to get mad he’d just stop replying to texts and on the rare occasion I’d call him, he wouldn’t answer. We’d both spiral into a rage, frustrated that we couldn’t express out true feelings – him because it was just not something he did in his culture, and me because it usually ended up in an argument because we just didn’t have a mutually acceptable way of talking things through. When we finally did manage to sit down and chat he said that when he was out late, it seemed better to say he was coming back soon, even if it wasn’t true, than to give me ‘bad news’ i.e. that he was going to be out for a long time! I explained that for me, that was worse, and I’d rather hear the truth, however bad it was – not that I wouldn’t get annoyed still but at least I’d feel he was being honest. I am learning to accept that if he goes out with his mates, he might not be back until the morning. And he is learning to be honest about this and keep the lines of communication open.
During the same little chat, he also told me that he feels ‘oppressed’ because I don’t want him to go out and have fun but at the same time he feels guilty that I can’t go out and have fun. I guess he’s right in a way – I do feel resentful – but at the same time I do understand the reasons he feels like he does, and also I feel that the fact that I can’t go out and enjoy myself doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t either. He was surprised to hear this and I think he appreciated the openness and communication – again he just hadn’t wanted to tell me because it was ‘bad news’ for me – that he wanted to spend time with his friends and not with me. His ‘Thai way’ seemed to be to just go ahead and go out with his mates anyway, knowing I didn’t like it, rather than facing up to things and saying to me ‘I know you won’t like this but I want to see my mates tonight”. Burying his head and hoping it would just go away or would get better by itself. He had no concept of ‘working on things’.
As always, I find myself asking ‘what’s the answer?’ – how can we combine the Thai culture and the British culture in our relationship? Unoriginally, the answer lies in taking the best of both worlds – I like the openness, communication and ‘facing up to your problems’ of my culture but maybe it should be restricted to the big problems and issues in life, not every little thing that I’m not happy about. “Choose your battles” as they say. And at the same time, a little less complaining (you don’t have to be honest ALL of the time!) and a little more sweetness wouldn’t do any harm. To use another old favourite: “you catch more with sugar than with vinegar”.