‘Thais and e-communication: The lights are on but no-one is home’

This article is about the way many Thai businesses and government agencies use internet-based communication, and the angst this generates amongst foreigners who try to engage with them. Now, one can readily excuse the fact that some Thai web sites have little English-language content – after all it is Thailand. We don’t mind if the English translation is a little clunky, as not every agency can afford a native-speaking editor. And we’re not overly concerned if web sites are rudimentary … unless of course the company is in the IT or web site design business. The concerns I’ll address now, in terms of their potential to have foreigners wringing their hands and pulling out their hair en masse, go beyond that.

The Thais’ tardiness in responding to emails is legendary. This was driven home when undertaking a project that required me to send emails to a range of Thai government departments and businesses. Only a few responses trickled back, and most of these took the form of automated messages stating “email deleted unopened”, “mailbox full” or “user unknown”. And when using the email response forms provided within web sites, more often than not the only result was an error message as soon as I clicked on “submit”.

But don’t take my word for it, scan any expat forum, or google on the words “Why don’t Thais reply to emails?” and read all about it. Better yet, try sending an email yourself to a Thai corporation, and then sit back and wait – and wait – for an acknowledgement or reply.

Aside from unanswered emails and malfunctioning forms in web sites, other e-communication problems commonly encountered in Thailand include:

• Web site content that is very outdated
• English-language content that is inconsistent and/or contradictory with Thai-language content within the same web site. I suspect that Thai language information is more likely to be updated, whilst English-language sits neglected and becomes increasingly outdated. This problem can also result from a poor quality original translation.
• Web sites that contain contradictory English-language information on different pages within the same web site. I suspect here that material is subsequently added by a different webmaster at a later date, with original material inadvertently left online
• A profusion of dead hyperlinks to other (presumably removed or renamed) English-language pages within the same web site
• Web sites that provide email addresses that do not work (e.g. emails sent to them are subsequently returned ‘user unknown’). I have even had the same thing happen, on several occasions) after using an email address provided in a current newspaper advertisement or other corporate literature.
• Web sites that don’t provide email contact details on English-language web pages within them

I find such problems especially puzzling when I encounter them dealing with organizations that are actively courting foreign customers. Take the example of a Bangkok-based hospital that was undertaking an international promotional campaign. The web site for this hospital contained two separate email enquiry/response forms, a general use email address, and another email address to report web site difficulties. Both email forms returned error messages, and emails to the addresses provided went unanswered. Eventually I called the hospital to get the information I needed – in this case, as a potential patient. Merely trying to be helpful, I duly reported the difficulties I had encountered. Months afterwards, those very same web site problems remained unattended.

Now, I’ll readily concede that problems like this occur in other countries. My primary point of comparison is Australia, but there at least, the degree of difference appears considerable. Problems that appear to be an endemic feature of business communication here in Thailand, are merely an occasional annoyance in that country.

But why is this issue so important (read = annoying or frustrating ) to foreigners?

• Because we often make contact from another country and hence the combined effect of time differences, language difficulties and call-charges make phone calls problematic or impossible
• Because – even when we are in Thailand – it is (theoretically, at least) a lot easier to communicate via email when either or both parties are not fluent speakers of the language of the other, and
• Because our understanding – and expectation – is that the whole basis of e-communication is efficiency and speed of communication. We want to communicate, to share ideas and do trade … and we can’t understand why Thais don’t seem to share our vision.

In fact Thais that I have spoken with seem amused or perplexed about how wound-up foreigners get about unanswered emails. Their position seems to be that they wouldn’t bother sending an email as they would never expect to receive a reply … as Thais don’t reply to emails. They are resigned to the fact that if they need a response then their only option is to actually visit the relevant person or organization.

I know plenty of Thais and I would very much doubt if unanswered emails are meant as deliberate snubs.
One exception might be situations where foreigners offer ‘customer feedback’, in which case our western notion of ‘constructive criticism’ still remains very much at odds with cultural norms in most Thai organisations.

Nevertheless from a foreigner’s perspective this manner of dealing with people and information is generally considered most unhelpful and rude, and hence unprofessional.

There are other reasons that are more likely to explain the Thais approach to e-communication, and these mainly concern administrative procedures (esp. in relation to IT systems) and certain aspects of Thai culture.

IT issues

Simple carelessness on the part of staff maintaining IT systems, combined with a lack of adequate English-language skills is a significant issue. Insiders have also told me of instances where passwords and procedures are lost or forgotten as key staff or contractors depart, and the web site or email system falls into disrepair.

Perhaps this is why the business cards of many Thai staff often feature personal hotmail addresses rather than dedicated email addresses using their organisations’ own domain name … they simply have no confidence that their own organisation’s email system can be relied upon and instead choose to work outside it.

I have a sneaking feeling too, that for many Thai organizations the web site is more fashion accessory than integral business tool … a static edifice with which they seek to flag their modernity. If that is the case, such a mindset is no doubt reflected in a lack of ongoing resources to properly maintain email systems and web sites.

Thai cultural issues

Potentially significant factors here include the concept of ‘kreng chai’, the hierarchical nature of Thai society, and the Thai notion of ‘face’.

Kreng chai (sometimes spelled greng jai), is one of the most important concepts relating to behaviour in Thai society. To be considerate and not to do anything that other people could dislike (i.e., to be kreng chai) is a traditional virtue. If one behaves this way, one shows respect and good manners. This might mean for example that if a positive response cannot be provided to an email enquiry, then it may be more polite to not reply at all, rather than send a negative response. This might apply for example when emailing a request for information that cannot be supplied.

In Thailand personal relationships and social hierarchy are a dominant force in how people relate to others. Where a correspondent has no prior personal relationship with the recipient of an email, and is of indeterminate status, then there is far less perceived obligation to co-operate or respond.

Finally in some cases the Thai recipients of the emails may not be sufficiently confident in their written English language skills to draft a reply, and subsequently fail to respond due to a concern that they may embarrass themselves or not be understood.

Whatever the contributing factors, the first step in dealing with this issue is for Thai organisatons to:

• Better recognize the mutual benefits of interacting efficiently online with other people and organizations, and
• Become more aware as to what is now considered appropriate in the context of doing business globally

Thai CEOs or heads of public agencies need to understand that an indifferent approach to e-communication will be seen as a reflection of the degree of professionalism and of competence within their organizations. If their priority is to be progressive, rather than just appear to be progressive, then clearly much more needs to be done by many Thai organisations.

A revised and updated version of Bruce Bickerstaff’s book “Your Investment Guide to Thailand” was recently released by Silkworm Books – further details at www.burning-bison.com

1 thought on “‘Thais and e-communication: The lights are on but no-one is home’”

  1. Laughed when I read this. I think we can all feel your pain buddy. The email reply that never arrives is just sooo common here, as to be taken for granted. Generally I don’t stress about it now, but every now and then …. grrrrrr!

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