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The concept of respect in Thai culture is quite different from that which you would find in Western culture. I often find myself having to explain the differences to both Westerners and Thais. The reality is that the concept of respect, or more importantly who deserves it and why, is deeply ingrained into our sub-conscious of our respective cultures. And so it is really hard for us to imagine that ‘respect’ can carry such a different meaning to someone else.
In Thai culture, there are three reasons you must give respect to someone else, as listed below. Note: the word วุฒิ wut4 roughly means ‘seniority’.
ชาติวุฒิ chaadt3 wut4
This is respect that you should give due to a birth right (ชาติ means ‘birth’). Someone who is born into nobility, a higher order, royalty, etc. must be respected. To a westerner this form of respect is unacceptable, as we strongly believe someone shouldn’t be respected just because they were lucky to be born to a certain family. But to a Thai ชาติวุฒิ is ingrained into their minds from childhood on.
วัยวุฒิ wai1 wut4
This is respect that you give to someone else because they are older than you (วัย means ‘age’). If you are 15, and a 40 year old tells you to do something, you do it. To question or disobey is considered disrespectful of your elders. To a westerner this may sound repulsive a bit, but we also do it. We help old ladies cross the street, listen to those who have been around a long time and by extension likely wise with experience, and ignore the young as those who just don’t know better. We often obey our parents and parents-in-laws, and our grandparents, even if we disagree. I’ve asked Thais how they felt about วัยวุฒิ. They said they ‘hate it’ when some elder bosses them around, and must obey even when they disagree. So I ask, ‘what about when you are an elder, do you want the kids to obey you?’ They typically say, ‘yes . . . because I’ve suffered my whole youth and now it’s my turn to reap the benefits’.
This is the form of respect idealized by westerners. This is to respect those who have virtue, that have earned respect through merit. Thais would agree. But in Thai culture, this form of respect is often trumped by the previously listed two forms – try telling your elders that they haven’t earned your respect and watch what happens. Or worse yet, a member of royalty . . . but I won’t get into that . . .