Trying to argue with someone who does not speak great English when you don’t speak their language is, I’m not sure of the word, somewhere between infuriating and amusing.
In my former life as a visiting professor at foreign universities, I was in this position several times. Most memorably when my students were cheating.
Imagine yourself as a teacher calling in an assignment and watching a student in the front row frantically copying from his/her neighbor as you literally stand next to them to collect the paper. Then the cheater looks up at you and says, “Just a moment professor” and gets back to cheating.
This is not a blog about cheaters, it’s a blog about how insanely different cultures can be. It’s about why you have to leave your ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, polite and rude inaccessibly locked in a drawer in your home country when you travel.
The cultural lens
There is a technical term for how we view what happens in the world, self-reference criteria. It just means that everyone sees things as right or wrong, good or bad, polite or rude, etc. based on the culture they grew up in. It’s your cultural lens.
Take free appetizers with your evening drink at a bar. In Italy, it’s rude if you don’t get them. In America, it’s suspicious if you do get them, “I’m not paying for this, I didn’t order it!”
The cultural divide
So, back to the cheaters. And I’m using the word ‘cheater’ purposely to make a point because from my cultural view as an American professor, copying an assignment, copying the answers is cheating and I’m not interested in your excuses, you have a zero.
But it’s not cheating in Thailand. In Thailand, it’s ‘helping’.
Give me a break. Has ‘helping’ suddenly become the euphemism for cheating? It has not – at least in Thailand.
Collectivist and individualist cultures
To explain this gaping cultural difference you need to know that Thailand is a collectivist culture. This broadly means that the community or group is emphasized over the individual. Exactly the opposite of an individualist culture such as The United States, Australia, United Kingdom, or Canada, for example.
Also, in the Thai university system students matriculate as a cohort over their 4 years of study. They get to know each other very well over the years.
So, now you have a close-knit group of students who genuinely want to look after each other. Individual grades are less important than how the group is doing. If one person is falling behind it really is the responsibility of others to help them.
Rowers and basket makers
Think about it like many people rowing a boat. It only works if everyone is rowing in the same direction and in sync with one another. If one person is off then the others have to help him or her get back in the rhythm. If one person gets fatigued the others have to pitch in to keep the boat going. No one person can say they rowed the best or they were the most important rower. Everyone rowed together and that is the satisfaction in a collectivist culture.
Life is more like basketball in an individualistic culture. When one person makes a basket he or she gets all the credit with maybe the mention of an assist. But what about the rest of the team? The person that scored does not feel bad about the singular attention he or she receives. This attention on the individual is an accepted part of an individualistic culture.
- In a collectivist culture being part of the team is a rewarding part of the life
- In an individualistic culture being the star of the team is a rewarding part of life.
Cheating in America, helping in Thailand
Now apply this concept to the classroom and you can begin to see why copying is cheating in America and helping in Thailand.
If a student did not do the assignment then others need to pitch in and help him or her keep the team moving forward. It’s a duty, part of the social norm, to help each other.
Not helping in a collectivist culture would be like blocking the shot of your star point maker so someone else on the team could make the basket. If you did that you would be ostracized, probably kicked off the team. In the same way, if a Thai student did not help his or her classmate they would be ostracized, probably kicked out of the class.
So which of these two systems if right and which is wrong? It’s a trick question of course, because the answer is, they are different. Which system is better? Again, the answer is, they are different.
You may not have to deal with a classroom situation while you are traveling. But remember this story next time you belly up to the bar in Oslo and someone sticks an elbow in your ribs to get closer to the bar. They are not being rude or aggressive, it’s the way they make space at the bar in Norway. Remember it while you are enjoying a meal in Marseille and four strangers sit down with you, they aren’t selling you something or being rude. It’s the way they dine in France. Remember it when the Beijing subway attendant walks you to your hotel room, they aren’t being creepy or surveilling you, it’s the way they help foreign visitors in China.
Image from Bangkok Post