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Understanding Thai Culture Through Orality

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

As a Westerner, there are many aspects of Thai society and thinking that I find strange, baffling, or frustrating - and sometimes all three at once.  But as I  read through Walter Ong’s book “Orality and Literacy”, there were several “Ah ha!” moments about Thai culture.  Many of his descriptions of oral cultures resonated with things that I’ve observed in Thailand.  I felt like I was beginning to understand why the Thai do some of the things that they do, thus disarming the judgmental attitudes that I’ve had at times.

I suspect that many more cultural differences between Thailand and the West that can be tracked back to orality than the ones that I list below.  And even these differences likely cannot be attributed entirely to orality.  Whether you are primarily oral or literate, other factors such as personality, family background, education, sin, and faith come into play in making a person who they are.  To classify all Thai people as oral thinkers and all Westerners as literate thinkers would grossly oversimplify matters.  However, as a general grid to think about cultural differences that I encounter, orality and literacy are a helpful framework even though individual people from any culture may fall any place along the spectrum.

 

Rote Memorization

Ong noted that in societies that are primarily oral, rote memorization and recitation is the primary mode of education in schools, such as those in Thailand.  As a person reared in an educational system that encourages analysis, comparison, and critical thinking, I’ve found this aspect of Thai education frustrating and often unproductive.  But realizing that oral societies are conservative and pass on knowledge by memorization, I can see why rote memorization would still be the most common mode of teaching and learning.  

Plagiarism

Also related to the educational system is plagiarism, which most Thai people don’t think twice about.  As an English teacher, I had students print off webpages and hand them in as their own work.  In truly oral societies, nothing can be written down and thus there is no way to reproduce anything verbatim, nor to verify the original source.  The concept of plagiarism is something entirely unique to the development of writing, and especially to the printing press.  Thai people can read and write, of course.  And there are lots of books in Thailand, as well.  But it would seem that the wide acceptance of plagiarism may be a residual effect of orality in a society that can read but still primarily functions on oral modes of communication and thinking.

Orality at the Movies

Orality even effects movie choices.  Living in Thailand, I sometimes like to watch Western movies but I have noticed that the majority of Western movies that make into the Thai market are one-dimensional violent action movies.  Thinking movies with complex plots don’t make the cut.  But this trend makes sense when one realizes that stories in oral cultures tend to have stereotyped “heavy” characters, and bizarre elements in order to be memorable.  Epic stories in oral cultures don’t have much plot development, but are merely vaguely related episodes strung together by the presence of an itinerant traveller or some similar character.  So it would seem that Thai people as primarily oral communicators prefer movies with oral forms of narrative.  I hope that as literate thinking increases in Thailand, we’ll get more “thinking movies” but in the meantime, I am just as happy as the next guy to enjoy watching Will Smith fight robots.

A Lack of Introspection

In Western Christianity, there is a tradition of contemplative spirituality.  This kind of quiet, reflective faith values isolating oneself, meditating upon Scripture and praying.  Monks did it in the monastery, and evangelicals have carried it on in “the quiet time.”  Hand-in-hand with this tradition is the value placed upon introspection, or analyzing the inner person.  Do I have true faith?  Have I sinned?  Why did I sin?  What kind of person does that make me?  Why am I like this?  Am I an ESTJ or an INFP?  

Being able to examine oneself is seen as extremely important in Western Christianity.  But oral people are not introspective, or at least not in the same way or to the same degree that literate people are.  In Thailand, most people are not reflective, introspective thinkers, but they prefer to just get on with the business of life.  However, when Thai people become Christians, many Western missionaries want them to have a daily “quiet time” or to use foreign produced discipleship materials that emphasize individualistic contemplative spirituality.  These methods and tools have benefitted the missionary so they will be great for the Thai, or so the thinking goes.  But many Thai Christians would prefer to learn the Bible in a group instead of having a quiet time.  They are not introspective in the way that Western missionaries would like them to be.  This “failure” on the part of Thai Christians is sometimes seen as missionaries as evidence that they are not spiritual.  After all, isn’t having a daily quiet time essential to spiritual growth?  

Ong makes the astute observation that introspection is only possible with writing.  Introspection is analysis and deduction.  Those skills come with literacy.  Therefore, is it really reasonable for literate missionaries to expect oral Thai Christians to grow in the faith in ways that are largely made possible only by literate thinking and the printed word?  Did the earliest Christians all have quiet times?  Did they all have their own personal copies of the Scriptures?  Or perhaps they learned the Scriptures together, hence Paul’s command to Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” (1Timothy 4:13).  Corporate reading and learning of Scripture is a lot more important when you don’t have your own copy of the Bible, and have not necessarily learned to be introspective through a literate education.

A Partial, But Helpful Explanation

Orality doesn’t explain all aspects of Thai culture but as a grid for foreigners to evaluate what they are seeing and experiencing, orality is an excellent tool.  The more that we understand why people do what they do, the better prepared we are to put aside judgmental attitudes, to meet people where they are, and to be a blessing to them.

 


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