Thai Cell Phone Etiquette

Two and a half years ago, while I was traveling on Semester at Sea, I was surprised when cell phones would appear in locations like the forest of Vietnam or a small village in India. It was a little bit of a surprise to me that the cell phone revolution had really spread everywhere and was changing communication worldwide, not just in developed countries. I didn’t dwell on the thought too much though. A cell phone would ring, I would think “that’s odd, who here has a phone?” and then move onto my next thought.

Now that I’m living in Thailand though, I’ve been thinking a lot more about this thought. Every single person I have met in this country has had a cell phone. All of my students who come from poor and middle class families have cell phones, all of which are far more advanced than the hand me down cell phone I use. Cell phones are everywhere and there is a different kind of cell phone etiquette, or perhaps a lack of one, that accompanies the devices.

No matter who you are having a conversation with and no matter how important the topic at hand may be, a Thai person will still answer their phone should it ring. Occasionally they will apologize first before picking it up and sometimes they will talk in an almost inaudible voice on the phone to make up for the interruption, but this isn’t always the case. I was offended by this behavior in the beginning. In the states if someone answered their phone while I was mid-sentence I would be put off and think that they were rude. It’s a way of showing me that I’m not significant enough to deserve your full attention. Apparently this behavior is not considered rude here though; it actually hasn’t occurred to most people that this might be impolite.

I was a little shocked to notice this as I was learning about Thai customs and how important respectful actions are in Thai culture. Toddlers learn to wai (bow head with hands in prayer) to elders at a very early age and a student that can be a brat in class will still be extremely respectful by waiing or helping me outside of class, for example. I found myself wondering why a culture that values respectful behavior so much would allow such impolite cell phone behaviors to continue?

During one of our first work meetings, the idea that teachers in our organization will not answer their phones in class was introduced. I was startled to find that this was even an issue. Why would a teacher answer their cell phone mid-sentence during a class in front of their students? What kind of example does that set?

The excuses started to pour out. What if the director calls us? What if our husband calls? What if my family is hurt? Waiting a half hour for the class to finish before calling a person back didn’t seem like an option to them, or at least it was an option that could only result in bad endings.

Family is so important here that the idea of ignoring a call from a spouse or sibling or parent is preposterous. The way I see it though, cell phones are using one pillar of Thai society, family, to chip away at another pillar, respectful behavior. Cell phones cause people who care about their family to become disrespectful towards whoever might be in conversation with them. But then again, nobody seems to find this disrespectful or annoying other than foreigners, so I guess if Thai society is okay with it then I should be too.

Now I only get annoyed when someone answers their cell while talking to me. I will not give up on the idea that teachers should not answer their phones in class though, that will always be unacceptable to me.