I had been told that Thai people communicate indirectly but as time has gone on I have seen so many instances of Thai people communicating quite directly and to the point that I question whether that statement is really true. Sometimes they can be quite direct but other times so indirect that I have no idea what happened.
While at the hospital recently with some believers from the PhraBaht church, I noticed that one woman had this little bookelt in her hand as we waited to go in to see the man we had come to visit. The booklet is called, in English, "Criticism: Giving it and Receiving it" or something along those lines. I asked her about it to see what she thought. It had piqued her interest because of how much gossip there is going around and how difficult it is to reconcile differences with other people. Unfortunately, she hadn't read it yet and couldn't give me a review. However, after confirming that it was indeed translated from English, I asked her to let me know what she thought when she was done. Did she think the advice and way of going about giving and receiving criticism too Western or was the advice contained therein good and usable for Thai people? She gave me a puzzled expression and said, "It shouldn't make a difference, should it?" I went on, "Well, you know that Westerners often talk pretty directly, saying exactly what they mean, and Thai people...." She interrupted, "Ah...." apparently understanding where I was going with my question and then went on to explain, "that's because when you don't know someone really well, you give them more respect. You're not close with them so therefore you need to speak more politely." "You mean speak in a round about way instead of directly?" I interjected.
"Right", she confirmed and then went on, "or even sometimes with friends I might speak indirectly, especially if I need to borrow money. I wanted to borrow money from a particular friend and I took such a long and indirect route in asking her that she finally she looked at me and said, 'How much do need?' But with friends you can usually speak more directly because you are close with them. I was on the phone the other day ordering some things, speaking in a really common familiar way because I knew the person and didn't need to bother with all the pleasantries. My mom overheard the conversation and when I got off the phone reprimanded me for not speaking more politely. I explained that we knew each other and it was fine but she still wasn't buying it."
From this conversation, I think that I can draw a few helpful points about indirect communication in Thailand.
1) The better you know someone, the more directly you can speak with them. The corollary here is that indirect communication is going to be more common when you are dealing with strangers or mere acquaintances.
2) When someone seems to be speaking around and around, there may be very well be something uncomfortable or awkward that they want to say or ask but can't quite bring themselves to say it. The speaker may feel awkward for themselves or may not want the listener to feel uncomfortable or ashamed by hearing it put bluntly.
3) Indirect communication can be a form of respecting another person, the speaker not wanting to disrespect the listener by being too familiar with them.
I shared my conversation at the hospital with my wife, and she had the further observation that one reason that Thai people communicate indirectly with strangers may be because they don't know how much power that person to hurt them. If you are too direct or too open with someone that you don't know well, it could come back and bite you. Information is power.
Indirect communication may very well help to avoid awkward situations and the potential for hurt but I am not convinced that it is always the most helpful form of communication. In the church context, it seems that there have been many times where a gentle indirect prodding about sin in someone's life doesn't get any results. The best way forward from there may not be to merely continue indirect making hints or just letting it go. I am not advocating legalistic picking on every little thing in people's lives that is not right but when there is big notorious ongoing sin that is going unchecked, there comes a time when indirect communication needs to be pushed aside and a more direct and firm, yet gentle and loving, form of communication needs to be pursued. Sure, it will be uncomfortable but if the joy, repentance, and restoration of the erring believer is the goal, then it is worth the risk of ruining a relationship by speaking more directly. The goal of addressing unrepentant sin in a person's life is not to beat them over the head in a self-righteous manner, but rather to see them restored, walking in joy and reconciled in their relationship with God and with others. Restoration is the broader context of the passage on church discipline in Matthew 18. Since the Thai often address uncomfortable issues where people could lose face by speaking indirectly, that type of communication would be my first stop in trying to guide someone back into a right relationship with God and others but if they don't get it or ignore it, more direct communication may be needed. It may be more culturally appropriate to just "let it go" or keep communicating indirectly for fear of losing the relationship but biblically, Jesus did not just let people go. As a shepherd going after the lost sheep, he pursued them in order to bring them home (Matt 18:10-14, notice that this section is just before the one on church discipline - the two go together). In Thai culture, there is a lot of value placed upon maintaining outward harmony even if there are known problems just beneath the surface but the goal of church life to honor God through obedient living and reconciled relationships. When people are right with each other, genuine unity is the result, not merely superficial and outward organization unity (Ephesians 4:1-16)