When Kat and I are involved in a conversation with Thais, there is an obvious difference in protocol depending on the general age of the person to whom we are speaking. If the person is middle aged or older, we settle into a predictable methodology. Despite Kat's very obvious superiority in use of the Thai language, and despite my very obvious attempts to deflect or steer the rapid fire questions in Thai to her, older folks nevertheless face me and address their inquiries my way. My strategy to lean or move toward her so that we are at least both in the line of vision does not seem to make a difference, nor my quizzical looks to her when I have absolutely no idea what has just been said. I am still the person to whom the conversation is directed. This is just the way things are in Thailand: It is traditionally a male-oriented society, and even though one from the west may feel a bit awkward in such a situation, it is something that one must learn to take in stride. Younger people are beginning to show less deference to males when in such a situation, but the tradition remains strong.
This situation is not all that different among more conservative westerners, certainly in the United States, and was the norm just half a century ago. With the global connection through computers and movies well underway, as well as more frequent travel, I am sure that this trend will continue.
A Thai student of mine suggested that the Thai may make an assumption about the educational status of the people he is speaking with, based on his own situation, and apply it subconsciously to the conversation protocol. She went on to say that Thais still create in their minds a hierarchy based on social or educational status, but that it is definitely changing among the younger generation.