There is a common misconception that Thailand doesn’t take punctuality seriously, that it isn’t considered a Thai virtue (such as being greng jai is). While it is true that many Thai people are regularly late and seem to have a “flexible” view of time, punctuality long has been considered a virtue in Thailand and a habit to be acquired by all.
King Mongkut, the fourth monarch of Siam (1851 – 1868), was a great advocate of punctuality and critical of those who were frequently late, saying that “whoever does not consider time to be important, that person is unscrupulous. Unreliable.” (ผู้ใดไม่ถือเวลาเป็นสำคัญ ผู้นั้นเป็นคนไม่มีหลัก เชื่อถือไม่ได้). King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great asked that his children should receive no special privileges and be inculcated with “a sense of discipline, responsibility, duty, punctuality, and compassion” (according to headmistress Khunying Tassanee Bunyakupt).
Monks in Thailand have also long taught punctuality as a virtue. The Thai word for punctuality is “dtrong dtòr way-laa” (ตรงต่อเวลา). The legendary Thai monk Somdej Toh said: “To train the mind to be effective, you must be punctual” (ฝึกจิตให้ได้ผลต้องตรงต่อเวลา). At the famous temple Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Pathum Thani, they teach a Buddhist program that emphasizes “5 Universal Values of Goodness:” cleanliness, orderliness, politeness, punctuality, and meditation. Meanwhile, many universities in Thailand include punctuality to their list of virtues to develop in students.
So, what is causing this dichotomy between the virtuous ideal of punctuality in Thailand, and the real life experience of Thai people frequently being late for appointments, meetings, classes, events, etc.? Some argue that the virtue of Thai punctuality is not taught widely enough and thus its importance hasn’t reached a mass consciousness. But this isn’t true, as can readily be seen when one brings up the topic of tardiness jokingly referred to as “Thai Time” (ไทยไทม์).
Many Thais will quickly dispute the notion that they don’t value punctuality, stating that the people of the Philippines and Burma are much worse than them when it comes to being late. They then will cite all the things which they have no control over (like rainstorms and traffic jams) that legitimately cause them to be late. Many also will add that it isn’t all Thais who lack punctuality, and that they are always on time.
In our 20+ years of teaching at universities in Thailand, we frequently have seen teacher assessments where students say that they very much appreciate the teacher who is always on time, and that a punctual teacher is a good role model (even though they have a hard time being on time themselves).
The fact is that most Thais know that being punctual is important, and that they should strive to be on time. Why then are Thais so often late? The answer relates to two things: 1) a lack of training in the skills and awareness needed to be punctual; and 2) other Thai virtues which conflict with being punctual.
Many people overlook the fact that being punctual is a skill and mindset that needs development. Anontawong Marukpitak talks of an interesting study where Thais and foreigners were shown three different pictures. Each picture depicted a different scene of people engaged in an activity (such as eating), with a clock visible on the wall. They were asked to describe what was happening in each scene. 90% of the foreigners mentioned the time (according to the clock) and took that time into consideration when describing what was happening in the picture. Meanwhile only 20% of Thais did the same thing. That is, 80% of the Thais interviewed ignored the clock on the wall.
This experiment corresponds with our own personal experience that (compared to Westerners) Thais are much less aware or concerned about the precise time of day as they go through their daily lives. Because of this, they have spent far less time assessing how long it takes to do a certain activity, which in turn causes them to be late for a scheduled happening.
The reason for this lack of concern about time is that Thailand is still (by far) a rural country, one where millions have grown up on farms where it’s rarely important to be aware of the precise time on the clock. Millions more Thais work for themselves, such as running a food stand or small convenience store, where again an awareness of the precise time is rarely needed.
The second cause of Thais being late is conflicting Thai virtues. In Thailand, to be “jai yen” (i.e. calm, cool, and collected) is a universal virtue. The only downside is that it can result in Thai people not wanting to rush when doing anything (because it would cause them to become heated and stressed). So, if a Thai person can be on time for something, but it requires 15 minutes of rushing around, they ordinarily will choose to be late instead.
Other Thai virtues that can conflict with being punctual are the avoidance of loss of face and being “greng jai” toward others (i.e. not wanting to inconvenience someone). Thais often will be involved in some discussion or situation with a friend, co-worker, or merchant where they should speed things along or cut the discussion short in order not to be late for something. However, they feel that to do so might annoy or inconvenience the other person, or make them lose face (because they don’t value the person high enough). Thus they will choose to be late instead, especially as there are rarely any serious repercussions for being late.
So, being punctual in Thailand is sometimes a difficult balancing act for the Thai person, as well as a skill they haven’t had practice enough developing. The Thai people who are most punctual are those in the military and corporate executives, because in both cases there are often severe, clear, and immediate repercussions for being late.
If you are a teacher or business owner in Thailand, you also must make abundantly clear the repercussions (penalties) for being late, as well as the benefits for being on time and punctual. And while you should never get angry with tardiness or take it personal, you must not budge from the workplace or classroom rules that you’ve laid down. Instead you should always look for ways that you can help your Thai students or workers develop the skills and awareness needed to achieve that prized Thai virtue of punctuality.