Living in Thailand for two years now, I’ve picked up on a number of differences between Thai culture and American culture.
These contrasts might not seem all that big when you look at each one in isolation.
But they add up. And with each contrast layered on top of another, you end up with two cultures that are almost diametrically opposed.
I wanted to take some time today to discuss five of the biggest differences between Thais and Americans that I’ve personally experienced since moving to Thailand in 2017.
Now, I’m not the foremost expert on Thai culture. I’ve only lived here for two years. There are a number of intricacies to any culture.
Moreover, a culture is hard to generalize. Culture can vary from one area to another. Plus, one’s perception of culture is largely based on their own experiences and biases.
With that said, these are five big differences in the two cultures that are apparent in my everyday life.
I moved to Thailand to live out my early retirement dreams, which is something I talk about in my most recent best-selling book, 5 Steps To Retire In 5 Years.
So far, so good. Moving to Southeast Asia has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. No doubt about it.
But life is different over here. Very different.
Now, that’s not to say that one culture is better than the other. I’m not here to claim supremacy of one over the other.
That’s not my aim. I don’t need to tear one thing down in order to build another thing up.
Rather, I just want to provide some insight and quickly share five of the biggest and most interesting differences between the two cultures.
Collectivism Versus Individualism
This might be the biggest contrast of all.
I say that because everything else about these two cultures almost seems to stem from their social sense.
Thailand is all about group settings. Thais like to gather, converse, and eat together in a collective way. They’re very social creatures. I’m talking about malls, markets, restaurants, bars, etc. You pick up on an energy that flows pretty much 24/7. Walking around on a Tuesday afternoon isn’t much different than walking around on a Saturday night.
There’s a sense of community here. It’s almost like you’re part of something larger.
It’s not uncommon to come home, immediately shower after work, then go right back out and be part of the social fabric until late in the evening. Every. Single. Day.
On the other hand, The United States is all about the individual. Comparatively speaking, the USA is sterile. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it’s not at all like Thailand.
After work, it’s all about going home to your castle. Cook your dinner, eat with only a few people (or alone), and watch TV on the couch. Then maybe hit the town for a bit on a Saturday night.
Americans like their privacy and quietness. And even when going out, there’s usually a prioritization on an immediate family/friend nucleus.
Related to this, I’ve noticed that it’s not uncommon for Thais to just stop by your place and say hello. By contrast, you almost need an appointment in the States to stop by someone’s place. Even with my best friend in the whole world, he would be highly surprised if I were to ever randomly show up at his front door.
Homogeneous Versus Diverse
Now, it might be easier to be part of a larger social fabric when everyone is more or less on the same page regarding background, language, culture, religion, general beliefs, etc.
That’s what you have here in Thailand. It’s a very homogeneous country. Thailand is built by and for Thai people.
Thailand gets a lot of tourists, sure, but the vast majority of people living permanently in Thailand are Thai. If you go outside of the small pockets of tourist areas, you’re going to find yourself completely surrounded by Thai people. Even in Bangkok. I’d know. I’ve been to these places.
This is totally different from the United States, which is a place that almost prides itself on its diversity. This is particularly true in the bigger cities, of which there are many.
I’m not interested in arguing the merits of diversity. Again, this isn’t about what’s better or worse. I’m only pointing out the homogeneity of Thailand, which is almost the complete opposite of what you have in the USA.
I will note, however, that one of the reasons I left the US is because of this sense of tension and divisiveness that I was picking up on. Maybe it’s real. Maybe I’m just imagining it. But I felt like there was constant tension in the States.
Not just political, either, but even among the people.
I don’t sense that tension in Thailand. It’s a very laid-back place. There’s no opposing worldviews rearing against one another. People might have disagreements about a great many things, but it seems to be more petty and simple over here. It’s not these clashes of ideologies or anything like that. There’s a culture and identity that is widely shared.
Values Versus Fun
The US has a certain value system. It’s one that, in my experience, a lot of Americans take pride in.
It prioritizes democracy, freedom, individualism, work, consumerism, timeliness, competition, efficiency, privacy, immediate family, and (perhaps most of all) money.
I’m obviously generalizing here. But I think these values are widely applicable.
If you want to make a lot of money, I can’t imagine anywhere better in the world than the United States.
To that point, there’s a sense of personal ambition and intellectual curiosity in the States that I find lacking in Thailand. That Western desire for self-improvement (even if the gauge is often money) is not as common over here. It’s very sabai sabai in Thailand.
One interesting difference between Thailand and the USA is in regard to confrontation. There’s nothing wrong with confrontation in the States. Maybe that has something to do with the tension over there.
Thai values are almost completely the opposite, especially when it comes to confrontation.
Thai people value Buddhism, self-control, community, respect, and a non-confrontational attitude. If there’s a problem, Thais would rather ignore it until it goes away and things return to where they were.
Money is deprioritized, relative to the USA. Not to say that it’s not important here, but Thais don’t pray at the altar of the almighty dollar (or baht).
Also, sanuk is a big part of their value system. I’ve discussed the importance and relevance of sanuk before.
It’s all about having fun and not taking life too seriously. Thais are smiling a lot. They don’t call it Land of Smiles for nothing. I’ll often see Thai people just smiling and catch myself NOT smiling, which kind of makes me smile in recognition of this. I’m slowly catching on.
Also, Thai people don’t seem to have a political correctness filter, at least among themselves. They’re not constantly getting offended about everything. They just say what’s on their mind and how they really feel about things. This isn’t a confrontational thing because it’s how they all are. No harm is meant.
I think the communication is less fake over here as a result, albeit with the knowledge that I also don’t understand all of the Thai language.
But I do love that when someone is fat, for example, they’ll be told they’re fat by their friends and family. They tell it like it is over here. They “keep it real”.
The exception to this is when speaking to elders or about leaders. Thais take care when speaking to people older than them. Even if the older person is wrong, it’s not likely to be called out (especially by someone younger). Not being called out is something that is actually pretty prevalent. It’s part of “saving face”, which is huge in Thailand.
Tangentially, “up to you” is one of the most popular sayings in Thailand. I hear it constantly. They’re telling you that you have to take responsibility for your actions and deal with the consequences of your choices. Man up. It’s your life. As a huge fan of personal accountability, I quite like that.
Thais strongly believe in karma. If you do a bad thing, then a bad thing will probably happen to you. Choices and consequences.
The US is going in the opposite direction with this kind of thing, where the victim mentality and blame game are spreading. Everyone is becoming offended and outraged about everything. You now even have “participation trophies”. And the mainstream media is all to happy to make you feel like a victim of “the system”, instead of the aggregate result of your choices. When I was young, Americans would call a spade a spade.
Last, but certainly not least, women in Thailand are generally very different from women in the States. Thai women tend to be more feminine and old-school in terms of how they see male-female roles and interactions. Feminism isn’t really a concept over here, which results in relationship dynamics that are far apart from the States.
Big Versus Small
The US is known, both abroad and within its own borders, as a place where everything is big.
Land, cars, houses, paychecks, people, clothing, portions of food. Everything is big over there, even when it doesn’t make sense to be big. Bigger is used as a proxy for better. Bigger is better, because… bigger? I find it silly, to be honest.
If you want a big life – house, car, yard, wardrobe, family, etc. – the US is where you should be.
No matter what it is you’re talking about, you’ll find that it’s almost universally smaller here in Thailand. My life has shrunk over here.
Apartments are smaller. People are smaller. Portions of food are most certainly smaller, which has partially helped me get into the best shape of my life. I’m in better shape now than I was in my early 20s while still living in America!
This contrast also shows up in the geographical sense.
The US offers beaches, deserts, mountains, high plains, the Great Lakes, etc. There’s such a diverse range of climates and geographic locations in which to live your life. It’s truly amazing and a huge perk of living in the States.
Thailand is more of a one-note kind of place in this respect. It’s a very small country – smaller than Texas in terms of land area.
Today Versus Tomorrow
Lastly, we have the different frame of reference regarding time.
This is something that I’m not sure a lot of people would pick up on if they were to live here. But I’ve definitely picked up on it.
It frustrates me sometimes, but I’ve learned to go with the flow. In fact, living in Thailand has helped me to live more in the moment. This is a big change for someone who thinks in terms of life epochs.
Thai people think only about today. They really live in the moment.
I’m not speaking figuratively here, either. I’m speaking literally.
They’re not thinking about tomorrow, let alone five or ten years from now. It truly is only about today.
Meanwhile, it’s very common in Western culture to plan for the future. If not five or ten years out, at least for the next year or so.
It’s not uncommon for me to have a conversation with my best friend (who still lives in the US) about what’s going on with his family for the next holiday, or something of that nature. He’s even come around to the idea of FIRE, so he’ll occasionally talk about some ideas he has looking out five years from now.
But my Thai girlfriend has difficulty with thinking about the upcoming weekend. Forget about six months from now. It’s totally out of the question.
Thais simply operate on a very short time horizon.
It’s been fascinating for an American like myself to come to Thailand and set up my life over here.
Thailand is so different from the US in some respects, it may as well be on another planet.
Some Americans would love this. Some would hate it.
I’ve been greatly appreciating this different culture, but that’s probably because I don’t think I ever fit in well over in the States. America treated me well, for the most part. And I’ll always be extremely grateful for my time there. But I found myself pulled toward the idea of living abroad many years ago. It doesn’t seem like I share a common value system with most Americans. As such, I actually experienced a form of “reverse culture shock” upon moving here. Now, I’m not even close to Thai, but I do my best to fit in and have fun.
Again, this isn’t about what’s better or what’s worse. It’s not a competition. Both have pros and cons. Which one a person would enjoy more comes down to personal preferences more than anything else.
I simply thought it would be worthwhile to share some of these culture contrasts with you readers today. Since most of my readers are American, I think it’s interesting and insightful to get a glimpse of a foreign culture like this from the perspective of an American living the FIRE lifestyle abroad.
What do you think? Ever stay in Thailand for an extended period of time? What did you find different about Thai culture compared to American culture?
Thanks for reading.
P.S. If you’re interested in retiring early and/or moving abroad, check out some awesome resources I personally used on my way to becoming financially free at 33!