Starting out in Business: Cross-Cultural Lessons from Thailand

by Raimund Homberg

After a happy and enthusiastic start to my business in Thailand, I found myself on an emotional and psychological rollercoaster that turned me after only a few years into another frustrated, disillusioned and burned out “Farang” (foreigner). What happened? I experienced the reality of day-to-day life in Thailand. I perceived that promises were not kept, legal rights not respected and I felt that no-one is trustworthy. All “they” want is my money, I thought. Sound familiar? Yes, I have been there. What to do? I called on the LORD Jesus, and He opened my eyes. Here is my story.

Starting out

I came to Thailand first of all in 1974 and stayed three years. After that I went back to Europe, but returned to Thailand in 1988. Around 1992 I settled in Tak Province in Northern Thailand and developed my business. I ran a small deodorant stone manufacturing and export business with my Thai wife. These were the days before the internet and the era of mobile phones. Many European customers did not know how to source products in Asia and they were more than happy to find a trustworthy partner in Thailand. It was still easy to export from Thailand and I had no problem with sales. But after I opened the business, the experience of dealing with local people, especially government officials, was burning me out.

Trapped in the government office

Let me tell you about one of those days. On this particular day I need to renew the factory license, one of those countless forms that needs to be signed at a government office.  My first mistake: I do it myself. (I have since learned a valuable lesson, whenever possible let a local deal with bureaucratic issues!). I am one of the first in the morning to deliver the form. Here is my frustration: The clerk handles his work in a hobby-like fashion. Very slowly. Not serious at all. Paying more attention to the TV. I have culture shock: a TV in a government office during work hours!! Unheard of in my country. Constantly somebody interrupts him, constantly somebody jumps the queue. I see my form lying beside him. It just needs one of his many rubber stamps. That’s all!

It is not that I have not tried to compete with the many queue jumpers.  I too went to him several times and demanded my paper to be stamped, explaining that I came first this morning. He only says “yes, wait a moment” and happily chats with the other clients and takes good care to follow the soap opera on TV. My frustration grows. Again I approach him “Please, I need this form stamped NOW! I have NO MORE TIME!”  I can almost read his mind. No time? Everybody has time. Exactly 24 hours, every day! He says:  “yes, wait a moment” and is fascinated by the soap opera scene were a woman is slapped and she cries bitterly. If you have been in a similar situation, you know what I am talking about. At last I pray. “LORD help me”.

A valuable lesson

Was this the Holy Spirit? I don’t know. Again I approach the clerk. He is still kept by the TV scene. In a humble voice I repeat my request. “Please, I need the form now”. He looks at me. I look in his eyes and say “I am hungry, please help me”. “You are hungry?” he asks, now really interested. “Yes, please, I am hungry”. It takes five seconds, BANG, the form is stamped. “Kob khun mak krab, thank you very much”. I leave the government building and enjoy a spicy noodle soup.

As a foreigner here I realized that my mind set is all about “the law” and “my rights”.  But in Thailand it is not so much about what is right or wrong or about the law, it is about relationship, about favour, about the ability to show grace.  Hey I thought, this is much more of a ‘New Testament mindset’ than mine!

I regain my love for Thailand

This insight helped me a lot to regain my joy for living in this beautiful country. Thai people teach me many valuable lessons, I even receive new insights into the New Testament context and writings. For example: how do I really love my neighbor as myself?  How do I humble myself, to seek grace and not my rights? Now, looking with Thai eyes I understand that my former perceptions were built on many cultural misunderstandings. Today I can happily say that Thai people generally do keep their promises, that legal rights are most of the time respected (although there are exceptions to the rule), and that Thais are generally trustworthy. In the West, money and time is indeed the driving factor, in Thailand it is not money that drives things, it is relationship. However, in many cases, when someone fails to establish relationships, they have to pay!

I realized that many problems we foreigners face in Thailand grow out of misconceptions. We need to realize that we deal with two complete different cultural contexts.  Westerners are grown up in a so-called “guilt culture”, where what is right and wrong dominates motivations. Asians, on the other hand, live in a so-called “honor/shame culture”, where saving face, preserving relationship and showing proper honor is a much more dominating force.

Comforting others

I received my confirmation to provide cross-cultural coaching for others when I read 2 Corinthians 1 v 4: “The God of all comfort comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”

I know the psychological pain foreigners experience when doing business cross-culturally. Cultural misunderstandings are a major cause for business collapse in Thailand and world-wide.  Now following some additional training for myself in cross-cultural principles, I use my 20+ years experience to provide cross cultural coaching and workshops for others.

How about you, dear reader? If you live outside your home culture you will have had your share of experiences. Knowledge has its rewards, ignorance has its price. Seek to understand the culture you are in and discover where it is perhaps more biblical than even your own! And where appropriate learn to live according to the saying: When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Raimund Homberg is a business owner and BAM practitioner living in North Thailand.Rai_profile_01