169th Meeting – April 1998

The Psychology behind Cross-Cultural Relationships

A talk by Brian Hubbard


Brian used the following article as the basis for his talk.



The cultural psychology of relating                                                 By Brian Hubbard

It's Wednesday and Steve and Ian have met for lunch in a restaurant in Chiang Mai. Steve is in a rather perplexed, pensive mood.     


"You know, I think for as long as I live here, I'll never understand this country or its people, and especially not my wife."                  

"Why what’s up now?"

"Well it was last weekend. On Saturday morning we'd met Andrew and Sila in Tesco and they'd come back to our place for lunch. Halfway through lunch, my wife tells me that she's made plans for Sunday for us to take her mother and our children out for the day. Her mother wanted to go to the Queen’s Temple on Doi Inthanon. Now the wife knows full well that I play golf every Sunday. I do a lot of business on the golf course and Sunday is a good day to meet people. So I tell her I can’t go. I suggested maybe she could get her brother to drive her up there in his pickup because I needed the car to get to Green Valley."

"Last Sunday was Mother’s Day, wasn’t it?"

"Err… yes, I think so, you could be right. Anyway, after I'd said that she was quiet for a few seconds and then she gets up from the table and storms silently out to the kitchen where, for no reason at all, she suddenly explodes at the maid. She calls her all sorts, says she's uncaring and inconsiderate around the house and that even though my wife treats her like one of the family, she's never here when she needs her to do something important. All this in English too, we heard every word. So the maid goes off to her room in tears and the wife comes back and sits down and finishes her lunch as if nothing had happened - except that she's still mumbling on about the maid; saying how if she doesn’t change her ways she's going to have to look for a new one. Now I couldn’t understand this because the wife is forever telling everyone how wonderful this maid is, the best we've had and how she'd never find another one like her. After Andrew and Sila had gone, I'd tried asking her what the problem with the maid was, but all she'd say was Mai pen lai."

"Sounds as if your wife was really upset - with the maid."

"Yes and that’s not all. On Saturday night, just before we're going to bed, the wife suddenly develops this mega-headache and says that she can't possibly make-love. Now we always make-love on a Saturday night, you know it’s a kind of a ritual after a good night out, but that went by the board last Saturday. She was even going to sleep in the guest room; so as not to disturb me, she said, if she couldn’t sleep because of her headache, but I persuaded her it wouldn’t be a problem."

"That was very considerate of her."

"Yes, and she was still being very considerate on Sunday morning. While I was having breakfast, she said she'd go and get the Jeep out so I wouldn’t be late to ‘tee-off’. So she goes out to the garage and two minutes later comes running back into the kitchen in tears, saying how she's really, really sorry but it wasn't her fault, the golf bag must have fallen over as she brushed past it and, without realizing, she’d reversed the Jeep out over it - back and front wheels!"

"Easily done I guess. Could've happened to anyone."

"Yes well they were only a set of golf clubs I suppose, but they were bent to hell; there was no way I could've played with them. But I couldn’t get angry with the wife; she was so upset it was all I could do to calm her down."

"So what did you do?"

"Well I couldn’t play golf, so I told her to forget about it and go and get the children ready, tell the maid she could come with us and we'd go and pick her mother up and all go to Doi Inthanon. You know it’s amazing how resilient Thais are because as soon as I said that the tears were gone and she was happy and smiling for the rest of the day. Turned out to be a really good day, I'd forgotten how much I enjoy being with my family. And we caught up with our lovemaking on Sunday night; the best we've had for a long time. But you know I still don’t understand my wife because all that had changed was that I'd agreed to take her and her mother out for the day. It was really no big deal."

"To understand your wife you'd have to understand more about the cultural psychology behind what it means to be a Thai person, and especially a Thai woman."

"Oh. How do you mean?"

"Well first of all, the business with the maid. Thais call this prachot; an anthropologist once described it as 'projected vilification'. Your wife was angry with you but the Buddhist teaching of non-confrontation wouldn’t allow her to show you, face-to-face, how she felt. So she ‘exploded’ at the maid, knowing that you could hear and understand every word, because all that she said to the maid was really directed at you."

"But my wife knows I’m a reasonable man. If she’d had a problem I'd have listened to her without blowing my top."

"But the potential was there for confrontation and your wife wasn’t going to risk making you lose face in front of your friends. Also, your wife was observing the Thai concept of Kreng jai."

"Kreng jai, what’s that?"

"Difficult to translate into one word in English but another anthropologist once described it as ‘diffidence, deference and consideration merged with respect.’ You're her husband and in a traditional Thai sense you're of a higher status than her. For her to have challenged you openly on this issue, and for you to have backed down or conceded to her, would've meant that you would have lost face. Thailand, like so many countries, may be a patriarchy ruled by a matriarchy, but it's a covert operation and should never be seen to be done overtly. Your wife was also making allowances for you not understanding prakhun."

"Prakhun - another Thai concept?"

"Yes. Prakhun is a favour or a benefit rendered by the parents; especially the mother, to their children, and the obligation to repay. Parents bestow the greatest favour in anyone’s life by bringing them into the world and caring for them, and this is a debt that can never be fully repaid. Prakhun is so pervasive in Thai culture that even the bride price; lah kha nam nom, paid by the man to his prospective in-laws, colloquially translates as 'The price of the mother’s milk'. Your wife will spend the rest of her life being katanyu; that is being constantly aware and conscious of the debt. Because prakhun is a meritorious debt, katanyu is a highly valued character trait in Thai society and your wife’s continued observance of it will earn great merit and respect for herself and her mother amongst their respective peers. Also, you couldn't have married your wife if her mother hadn’t brought her into the world and cared for her. When you married your wife you also accepted the obligation to repay prakhun."

"Okay I can understand that, but what about not making-love on Saturday night? I know she enjoys our lovemaking, so that’s a bit like ‘cutting your nose off to spite your face’."

"Not quite. Apart from still being angry with you, and having yet another way to try to get the message home, it was also an act of 'detachment' and 'non-commitment'; two of the Buddhist precepts for life. However much she may love you and enjoy your lovemaking, she's demonstrating to herself that she has control over her passion and can maintain a distance from you emotionally. Given the concept of prakhun, a Thai woman can never allow herself to become so passionately immersed in a relationship with her husband that it may jeopardize her katanyu. Her commitment and obligation to her mother would always take precedence. As far as 'detachment', one of the basic truths of Buddhism is that 'All life is suffering', so whatever you can do to protect yourself from, or alleviate, potential suffering, is encouraged. Buddhism teaches that 'Because nothing lasts forever, one must not become too emotionally involved, entangled or engaged. Deep involvement and attachment can only lead to disappointment and suffering.' So should your wife lose you; maybe you die or even worse go to another woman, then whatever degree of emotional detachment she's managed to maintain would lessen her suffering at your loss. Some farangs experience this as callousness, but to a Thai, brought up to believe that 'To maintain emotional distance and detachment, to achieve a sense of emotional equilibrium, is the middle path to live in balance', it's commonsense to protect yourself from the possibility of losing control and showing extremes of emotion, as in grieving."

"So what about reversing over my golf clubs? That strikes me as a pretty overt expression of her feelings."

"Yes, but against an inanimate object and not you. In a sense ‘killing two birds with one stone’. She had another chance to vent her anger and, by destroying your clubs, ensuring that you couldn’t play golf. The magnitude of her wrath was provoked by your insensitivity to her situation. She's the mother of your children, and her mother is also your mother, albeit in-law, and the grandmother of your children. It was Mother’s Day, an event for which the Queen is supreme matriarch. By your indifference, you were about to cause your wife to lose face in a big way. Also, she wanted a day to share with her family, all of them for once. So the ultimate act was to destroy your golf clubs, which was, in effect, a way of 'attention seeking'. She wanted you to pay attention to what's important to her in her life, and this was her last resort. Luckily for you that you didn't persist with your intention to play golf and go to the course anyway and hire a set of clubs. Her next recourse to 'attention seeking' may have proved terminal."

"Thanks, you've given me a lot to think about."

"Well while you're thinking about it, remember that all that I've just said is a generalisation, and will not be true for every Thai person to the same degree. Also that Thai society is changing. Buddhism is a philosophy for life, not a religion, and as such is flexible enough to be open to progressive re-interpretation. As Thailand is touched more and more by the West, it's going through change and, as with any such fundamental change to a way of thinking or living, there's stress and uncertainty to be overcome in the process."


© Text: Brian Hubbard 1997.