Conflict Resolution in Thailand

On my last trip to Bangkok I had gone and run some early morning errands and was on my way back to my hotel on Soi 11.  It was, as usual, hot as hell out and by the time I had made it up around Hillary II Bar I didn’t need much of an excuse to escape the heat for a bit and have a nice cold beer and maybe a little bar food.

As soon as I opened the door I began to question my decision.  There were two customers in the bar.  Both looked good and pissed up.  And judging by the empty shot-glasses strewn around the bar and the fact that every girl in the bar had a drink in her hand I was pretty sure these guys were running up one hell of a bar tab.

Now, Thai is not one of the Romance languages to be sure but when spoken softly it can as gentle on the ear as a purring kitten.  In contrast, Thai screamed at the top of the lungs by a drunken farmer’s daughter is like nails on a chalkboard.

And that was exactly what I walked into.  Two of the girls were obviously wasted and they were trying to pull down the pants of one of the guys.  The cackles, screams, and yelping of the gals as they tried to overpower a guy who probably outweighed the two of them put together filled the bar.

I sat down, ordered a beer, and started looking at the menu as the scene unfolded.  More drinks, more shots, and a ring of the bell had every girl in the bar whooping it up as the hairs on the back of my neck became erect.

Eventually the guys wanted to settle up and leave.  I have no idea what the deal was with these two guys but their bill came to 14,000 baht.  The place only opens at 10am and it was now about 2pm so that must have been some pretty serious drinking going on.

Now, what happens from here on out is the best I could piece together from overhearing things.  I can’t vouch that this is the same story the bar or the customers might tell but as a bystander I can only peer into the event and report on what I see and hear.

A problem came up when the guy paying the tab – even when drunk out of his mind – noticed that the bartender decided it would be much easier to just round the figure up to an even 14,000 than charge the actual amount of the bill which was less.  The guy kept asking where the other charge was for and, as it comes as no surprise to anybody who has ever had a bill dispute, everyone begins playing stupid like they don’t understand what he’s asking.  He goes over the bill again and again with them and they keep pretending not to understand.  Of course, this only infuriates the guy more so he slaps down the 14,000 and storms out of the place.  I believe the amount in question was less than 200 baht but for him it was the principle of the thing.

His friend calls the mamasan over and explains to her why his friend is upset.  He says that overcharge is not a lot of money but they’ve just spent 13,000 and some odd baht in her bar and they can’t figure out why they’re being ripped off.  To his credit he’s being very calm about it and isn’t confrontational at all.  He simply explains to her that for farangs it is an insult to charge a good customer more than what he owes even if it is only a very small amount of money.  He then goes on to explain how much business she is losing by ripping them off for and suddenly she gets it.  He walks her through 3 or 4 days of them not coming in and how much money that is if they decide to do their drinking elsewhere.

Once it dawns on her that she’s just lost tens of thousands of baht in business she bolts out the door to go make nice with the pissed off customer.  He comes back in and she calms him down a bit.  But, again, as is all too typical, the drunk girls start to try to “help” and end up pissing the guy off even more.  At one point he’s pointing at one girl and yelling “Shut the fuck up.  Just shut your fucking mouth.  I don’t want to hear any more from you.”  Does she stop?  No.

Eventually everything got sorted out and I don’t know if those two guys ever returned but it was a seemingly foolish thing for the bar to do after the guys had just spent so much money in the place.  Perhaps they thought the guys were too drunk to notice or the bar sincerely didn’t see anything wrong with rounding up the bill by a couple hundred baht after the gents had already spent so much money but either way they completely misjudged the situation.

This whole ordeal made me think about conflict resolution in Thailand.  Whenever I hear about something like this I typically see one of the following reactions:

1.  Customer uses accusatory language and the Thai person either shuts down or becomes defensive

2.  Customer storms off never to return

Both usually end with the customer pissing and moaning about it on a blog, message board, or to his friends.

But let’s look at both of these reactions.  The first is classic farang reaction.  Amazingly, it rarely even works in Farangland so it always strikes me as odd that we haven’t noticed its ineffectiveness and developed a better way of handling conflict.  It reminds me of the scene from Planes, Trains and Automobiles when Steve Martin’s character goes off on the car rental clerk.

Car Rental Lady: How may I help you?

Neal: You can start by wiping that fucking dumbass smile off your rosy fucking cheeks! Then you can give me a fucking automobile: a fucking Datsun, a fucking Toyota, a fucking Mustang, a fucking Buick! Four fucking wheels and a seat!

Car Rental Lady: I really don’t care for the way you’re speaking to me.

Neal: And I really don’t care for the way your company left me in the middle of fucking nowhere with fucking keys to a fucking car that isn’t fucking there. And I really didn’t care to fucking walk down a fucking highway and across a fucking runway to get back here to have you smile at my fucking face. I want a fucking car RIGHT… FUCKING… NOW!

Car Rental Lady: May I see your rental agreement?

Neal: I threw it away.

Car Rental Lady: Oh boy.

Neal: Oh boy what?

Car Rental Lady: You’re fucked.

The second option doesn’t really facilitate a solution either as most bars could care less if you came back.  For all many of these Isaan girls know customers are a gift from Buddha.  The second you walk out seething and vowing never to return there’s a guy right behind you and she just made an extra 120 baht by padding your bill.  How has that changed anything in her eyes?

But there has to be better ways of dealing with this kind of crap.  More and more I’ve been experimenting with creative new ways to deal with conflicts and annoyances.  For instance, one I’ve been playing around a bit with recently is immediately de-escalating the situation and try to get the manager to “help” me rather than confronting him/her with a complaint.

Obviously you have to adapt it a bit to the situation but as an example if I know I’ve been overcharged for something I’ll go to the manager and tell him/her that I’m confused and about my bill and that I’m having a hard time understanding the waitress.  I might even throw in that she’s probably right but can he/she just come over and explain it to me so I can understand.

So, I haven’t accused anybody of anything.  In fact, I’ve said the waitress is probably right.  All I’m asking for is for them to explain the bill to me.  He or she can now approach the situation open to finding a solution.  It gives them an out and a way to save face.  I’m not accusing them of ripping me off and should they be unable to explain a charge or some other abnormality with the bill then I can offer them another way out that saves face for them.

It’s difficult to do any sort of scientific analysis but I feel that I have gotten far better results via de-escalation than I did over the typical confrontation.  Most of the time people will try to help you.  You get some jerks in there but I’m guessing I would have gotten the same response had I been confrontational so it’s a wash.

Similarly, I normally stay at the President Solitaire on Soi 11 when I’m in BKK.  Whenever I leave my hotel there are 2 or 3 taxi drivers parked right across from the entrance and they always ask “Taxi boss?”  I tell them no and then they follow me asking where I’m going.  What’s even worse is they do the same thing when I return.  I know they recognize me and they know this is my hotel so why would they ask me if I need a taxi?

Well, that gets annoying real fast.  If I’m there for three or four weeks and I’m in and out of my hotel multiple times a day it becomes downright frustrating.  So one day I decided to do something about it.

As I was returning to my hotel one of them jumped up and asked me if I needed a taxi.  I walked across the street to him and asked him “You know me?”  He nodded yes.  “You see me every day go to this hotel?”  He nods again and smiles.  “Why you ask me if I need a taxi if my hotel is right there?”  He replied “Maybe you go airport.  Go home.”  So I told him the date when I was leaving and further told him that if he asked me if I wanted a taxi again I would find another drive and not use him.  I added that I would also tip him 100 baht more than the meter said when he did take me to the airport.  He gave me a card and wrote his name on it and that was that.

He never asked me again.  Now when I see him he smiles and says “Hello boss.”  A few times he has played around like he was going to ask me if I needed a taxi but it was all good natured joking.

I used a direct approach once when I was down in Phuket.  Especially the suit touts right on Bangla.  I figure on any given day I probably walk past the same guy 8 – 10 times.  Yet I get the same sales pitch every damned time.  Whenever a tout would become too annoying I would just walk up to him and start talking to him.  A typical conversation might go like this:

Tout:  Hey boss, I can make you a good deal on a suit.

Me:  Hey, how are you?  Where you from?

Tout:  You need suit?

Me:  No, too hot to wear a suit here.  I’m wearing shorts and I’m sweating.  I’d die in a suit.  How can you stand out here all day dressed like that?  Don’t you get hot?

Tout:  Confused Look Suit for when you go home.  I make here.  You take to your home.

Me:    Nah, I don’t really wear suits.  I’m more of a jeans and t-shirt type of guy.

Well, you get the picture.  Even a street tout will eventually figure out that you’re taking the piss out of him and after that you’re all but guaranteed that instead of trying to stop you the next time you pass his shop he’ll be too busy trying to avoid you.

Last, but certainly not least, the bartender at my local pub taught me this one the other night.  I paid for my drink with a £5 note and she gave me change.  I decided to have a little fun with her and said “Hey, I gave you a £50 note.”  She knew I was taking the piss because seeing a £50 is very rare in these parts but she can give it out just as well as she can take it.   She just smiled and said “There aren’t any £50’s in the drawer and besides the last four digits of the serial number on the bill you gave me were 2790.  You want to look in the till?”  I asked her how she knew and she said it’s an old trick she picked up working in bars.  She always keeps track of the last four digits so she can double check if she gave someone the wrong change.

Another variation on that might be to carry a pen or marker with you and whenever you get cash to make some sort of distinctive mark on your bills.  When they claim you gave a 500 baht bill when you know you gave them a 1000 baht bill you can whip out your bills, show them the distinctive marking, and ask them to produce a 500 or 1000 baht bill with the same mark.

What about you guys?  Do you have any ways of dealing with conflicts that are creative and effective?

How do you respond when a girl asks you to buy her friend of drink?

What do you do if you catch someone padding the bill?

What do you do when you get swarmed?  (Swarmed:  When you enter a go-go on a slow night and everybody from the mamasan to the janitor thinks that you should buy them a drink).

How do you deal with aggressive touts?

How do you tell an unattractive girl to beat it when she’s singled you out as her’s?

I want to hear how all of you Thailand vets deal with the common annoyances.  Maybe if we band together and share tactics we can beat them at their own game 🙂