The Deference Culture
Tourists checking into a five-star Bangkok hotel or dining at an upscale restaurant will no doubt recall the pleasure of receiving a traditional wai from the owner, headwaiter, serving staff. Pleasure is the key experience, the pleasure of being recognized, being special, being noticed—and all of it unearned. Such deference is the ultimate free lunch. This is ‘deference lite’, the tourist edition. It is part of the hospitality package like the complimentary arrival drink and fruit basket that keeps tourists returning to Thailand.
On the outward flight home, assume you are in first-class and the passenger next to you is a college age. His father and mother and younger sister are also in first-class. None of them have paid for their tickets. The father is a politician, a high-ranking officer, a member of the board of directors, sometimes all three combined into one. Beyond ‘Deference Lite’ this is the Full Monty of deference Thai style, which we can call ‘Deference Full Strength.’ In the full strength version, the objects float on a cloud of deference far above the ground occupied by ordinary mortals. Life takes the five-star reception experience to every part of public and private life. It is beyond anything that a foreign tourist would ever experience.
One reason that many Thais feel uncomfortable around foreigners is the Thai deference system breaks down in their presence. An example is when that first-class foreign passenger questions the right of a family to free tickets or inquires into a system that allows such an entitlement. In other words, foreigners might ask to justify such benefits as part of a deference system. That makes many Thais uncomfortable. They have little practice in defending such practices.
Foreigners bring a Thai accustomed to deference down from the clouds to the ground. Even more annoying, foreigners don’t pick up the subtle and not so subtle clues as to deference identifiers, or if they do, don’t accord them the same weight and value. The family names often mean little or nothing to them. The ranks and status of the person brings a shrug. The power and privilege of positions and ranks accorded deference don’t withstand the inquiries of foreigners as to why and how respect is attached to them. Thais will complain that foreigners look down on them. Some racists may do that. But what Thais often overlook is what is mistaken as a personal is the failure to automatically honor a Thai person’s claim birthed inside an unearned deference system. The fact is, that an undiluted deference system—Deference Full Strength— doesn’t extend beyond the borders of Thailand. And it never occurs to most Thais why that is and why exile is far more painful for a Thai than for most nationalities.
Deference is the respect or esteem that one person displays and is expected to display to another. In deference culture the superior person in the equation feels an entitlement to gestures of respect from the inferior members of society. Inferior may be defined in terms of age, rank, status, wealth, talent, skill or abilities. Every culture has deference infused in the society. There are people who are respected. That is a common thread around the world. But not all cultural deference systems are the same.
In the West, the deference culture is built around what must be ‘earned’ before a person can expect deference. It is also secular. In the West there is nothing sacred about deference owed or received. Yes, there will be some deference legacies passed along from generation to generation. But those legacies are fragile for the most part and along with a credit card will get you a first class seat on the airline of your choice. Social harmony isn’t disrupted because a person loses deference. In fact, a case can be made that overall social harmony is reinforced by the regular vetting of deference beneficiaries, as the bad apples can be plucked from the barrel. In Thailand, such a vetting would be viewed as ‘causing conflict’ and is discouraged.
In Thailand the deference culture is largely built around age, rank, family, and wealth. The Thai expression is kreng jai, and that term underpins the social, political and economic system and has done so for centuries. Deference doesn’t come in a one size fits all. It can be found in many different contexts and manifest itself in a number of different gestures and attitudes. It can be seen in the beautifully executed wai to an elderly person in a hospital room. It can be also seen when a Benz runs a red light in front of a cop who turns a blind eye. Or when the headman instructs a villager who to vote for. The social and political beneficiaries of deference run from along many different fault lines—monks to gangsters, from teachers to godfathers, from an old family name to a government official in quasi-military uniform. Regalia are important in Thai eyes. Look at the posters of candidates around election time. Most of them are in military styled uniforms or academic gowns, staring out at the potential voters who are expected to see a superior whose rank and name and status entitles them to power.
In Thailand, a case can be made that unearned deference is the norm within the deference system. By unearned I mean the person has no special talent, skill or ability that would independently grant him or her respect from other members of the community. The unearned deference is reaping respect from what someone else sowed. If you have the right family name you expect to receive deference. It doesn’t matter that you’ve accomplished nothing that would entitle you to deference independently. Any deference system can withstand a number of people in the legacy category. The problem with Thailand is the quota on deference functions the opposite way from the West: those who earn it (if they can) float along the margins because the true deference is reserved for the unearned deference holders.
You see them in their fancy cars, shopping for brand name items in the large shopping malls in Bangkok. These people look down on others and they expect respect from those very same people. The political power is also largely in the hands of such unearned deference holders. Not only do they demand their entitlements to deference, they can back those demands with political power. If on the way back from the shopping mall, they run over and kill a couple of peasants, the legal system is expected to defer to the driver’s and victims relative rank. Money changes hands but through the filter of how the deference is allocated.
In deference culture, where deference is independently earned, members of society view the person through a critical lens to assess the worthiness of another contribution, talent, and skills before conferring deference. That is not a one-time assessment. It is an ongoing monitoring system. So if you are Tiger Woods, one day the deference debt owed by others can disappear especially when your private life exposes you as having violated certain moral standards. When it is unearned, the beneficiaries of deference have a life-long entitlement that protects them from criticism, evaluation, or exclusion. It is this “get out of jail” card that allows immunity from legal troubles and gets them to the front of the plane as a matter of right.
The perspective of members within an unearned deference society does indeed think differently. It is common to read or hear Thais say, “Foreigners don’t know how we think.” What they are really saying is that foreigners don’t understand the Thai deference system. That is indeed a true point up to a point. Foreigners may well understand how the deference system works, because they see it from the outside looking in. They’ve not had constant indoctrination into a certain deference system that instills core values, attitudes and perspectives, ones that are accepted a fully valid and true and beyond discussion. To that extend, foreigners understand how Thai’s think but question the underlying basis of the belief system.
In Thailand, the personal information locals seek and the uses of that information are different from the earned deference system of the West. In a social setting, the signals and signs are read quickly: the family name, the rank, status or age are assessed. Then the connection between that person and his or her family with others, establishing the network, the wheels within wheels, that the person bothering with the inquiry can establish their power and reach within the political and economic network. The gift giving which flows as a tangible sign of respect is the slippery slope that descends easily into corruption. It becomes the basis of patronage and the client/patron relationship. The unearned deference system is intrinsically undemocratic. Instead it is firm embedded in a hierarchy where the major players right to place in the deference system can’t be independently questioned, criticized or discussed. It must be unquestionably accepted.
A number of people criticized the Thai constitution of 1997 for requiring a candidate for MP to have a university degree. It seems, from a middle-class point of view, a way to exclude the voices of rural people who have less of a chance for such an education. Another perspective is that the less educated class as something that must be in the constitution demanded this provision. This makes perfect sense from their point of view; only someone with a university degree could expect the deference of government officials and others to plead the case of a rural peasant. Sending a peasant leader to Bangkok as an elected MP would be counterproductive in an unearned deference system. Such a person would find the doors closed. The petition from the provinces would go unread and unattended.
The political impasse in Thailand since 2006 has been fed, at least in part, by a large segment of the population unwilling to continue to extend unearned deference to their betters. If democracy means anything, it means that in the larger political body of society, the political class that demands or relies on unearned deference as the basis for their political power will be in conflict with those who no longer are willing to defer without a prior commitment of equal respect. That is the fundamental weakness of an unearned deference culture: respect is unequally and unfairly distributed. It is never based on equal respect and consent.
The deference system plays out in many different ways from the way traffic lights are operated to restrictions on citizenship and immigration, to the processing of VIPs in the legal system. Once you have an idea of how the deference system is working underneath the surface, unmentioned, often unmentionable, suddenly what seems incomprehensible is filled with new meaning.
Is deference a kind of Ponzo illusion?