There’s nothing like attentive customer service, is there? I have often wandered around Home Depot or The Bay (a Canadian department store), hoping, praying, nay – DEMANDING that someone assist me, with little success. If and when customer service finally rolls in, their attitude tends more towards whaddayawant than helpful. Moving from Canada’s service-industry culture to Bangkok has given me an extreme case of culture shock. This is because service-industry workers in Bangkok are both obsequious and plentiful, and love nothing more than a good “hover.” Let’s break this down by adjective.


Thai workers in the service industry tend to be extremely polite. They also tend to wai (a small bow with the hands in a prayer-like gesture) at every opportunity. As far as I can tell, the wai is directed at all customers, not just farangs like myself. According to my Thai teacher, customers aren’t supposed to return the gesture, but it’s hard not to. I usually manage to control my hands, but I can’t quite stop the awkward bowing motion – I come off looking vaguely inebriated. Sometimes, the gestures of respect are taken to a new level. At our apartment complex, there are several security guards who bow whenever we walk by. They also salute us, and one has taken to clicking his heels. I spent two years in a military studies program, but I’ve never experienced this. (sorry, no photos)


The sheer volume of service-industry workers in Bangkok is often mind-boggling. When I visit my favourite self-serve doughnut joint, a worker inevitably rushes out from behind the counter, grabs my tray, and explains in Thainglish the components of each doughnut, and the way that I can combine different varieties to get the deal of the week. However, it is the house ware stores that really bring customer service to a new and disturbing level. Whenever I go to our neighbourhood Home Pro, I keep my head down and run through the aisles, because I’m afraid that one of the dozen or so employees hanging around the entrance will forcibly assist me. I have never felt so stressed-out when choosing light bulbs before –  rivulets of sweat trickled down my neck as multiple sets of eyes bored into my back.

It seemed a little offensive to photograph this behaviour, so my yoga buddies helped me illustrate what this feels like:

Yes, I may be pretending to purchase foam blocks of Chinese letters in a school classroom…


My brain gets swamped when it’s presented with too many options, which is inevitably the case when I’m handed a menu (or when I walk outside, or get out of bed, or…). I generally need a solid 15 minutes to make up my mind. This is problematic in Thailand, because waiters have a tendency to hand you a menu, and then plant themselves firmly by your side, waiting for your order. Imagine a hovercraft waiting to take off. As the seconds tick by, they look increasingly irritated – “How can it possibly take you longer than 30 seconds to order??” This is generally the most stressful moment of my day.

Another staged photo. Thank-you Patriotic Cute Texas Waitress Beth.

And that just about sums up Bangkok’s customer service industry. There are moments when I would love to go back to being ignored…

13 thoughts on “Obsequiosity

  1. You are lucky! Where I go they seem to be so scared of not being able to communicate with me that they don’t even make eye contact with me, let alone approach me! My ice queen vibe must work here too.

    • There are times when I wish I could channel the ice queen vibe a little more! It must be my “deer-in-the-headlights” thing that draws them like magnets…

  2. Ruthie with Home depot all you have to do is wear a dress and let your hair down. I went in there one day after a lunch date just to grab some paint swatches or something and was offered help by about 4 people, one of them didn’t even work there. the following time while wearing jeans and a T I had to search for help. I am a feminist so I haven’t tried this again, but if you are desperate…

  3. This is wonderful Ruth! You have a great affinity for capturing the farang experience in Thailand – particularly surrounding food. But here’s the thing; As a farang it really should only take you 30 sec to decide what you are having because farang only eat red, green and on occasion yellow curry, pad thai, spring rolls and BIG Chang (Tiger or Singha depending on what is cheapest)… 🙂 Also, have you noticed that when you ask for “spicy” the Thai’s give you the ‘look’? As if to say, ‘You mean white people spicy…’, but then if you utilize your Thai and say ‘Pet-pet’ it’s like they make their personal mission to make you fire-poop yourself? Love it XXA

    • Thanks, Al! And you’re right – I still haven’t figured out how to get food that’s moderately spicy. I’m too afraid to ask for “phet-phet.” I find that it’s better where I live (in the ‘burbs) than in the more touristy areas, but still…

      Christiana and I may have eaten/drunk half the items on your “farang list” in the course of a couple of hours…

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