There’s a lot of talk about “face” in Thailand, so what is this thing they call face. Let’s take a look at this strange quirk of Thai culture, let’s “face up to face”. Maintaining face, gaining face and “saving face” are a bit of an enigma, an unseen but ever present reality of social life in Thailand. Some say that “face”, especially the fear of losing face has held back Thailand’s progress as a nation because politicians are often unwilling to reverse decisions and change laws for fear of losing face. Many foreigners [ farangs] blame “face” for a multitude of problems when dealing with Thai people. Understanding “face” and how face works in Thailand can help you to more easily deal and negotiate with Thai people, by taking a little time to study the concept of face in Thailand you may avoid losing face yourself.
What is “face”.
The best way to describe face as it applies to Thailand is to liken it to what we in the west would call reputation, prestige, honour and social standing. Face is all about being polite, considerate, inoffensive and unobtrusive. There is a saying here in Thailand, actually it’s more than a saying, “kreng Jai” “(sometimes spelt “Greng Jai”) is deeply rooted in Thai culture, being kreng jai is to be polite and respectful and avoid loss of face for oneself or another person.
Where does Face originate from.
The earliest records of the concept of face in the English language date back to the late eighteen hundreds when terms such as “lose face” and ”saving face” were used by western newspapers and authors to describe potentially embarrassing situations faced by the people and government of China. Many philosophers have studied the meaning of face and wrote detailed theories covering it’s many complexed guises as it pertains to China and countries influenced by Chinese culture.
Examples of “Face” in Thailand.
The scenarios I have described below are theoretical but plausible examples of “Face” in Thailand.
After being dumped by her farang [foreign] boyfriend, to save face, Suree the Thai girl tells her friends that she left him. In the case that he left her for another woman she may well say that she caught him cheating and told him to sling his hook, her word will not be questioned even if her friends suspect she is lying. The bottom line is they know she is trying to save face, and they are more than willing to help her.
Somchai, fresh out of school has just started his first job at “Pattaya Unlimited”, one of the most popular websites in Pattaya. Somchai is struggling with a template editing program, he is actually making a right ‘pigs ear’ of it, seeing that Somchai is struggling, a co-worker can see what Somchai is doing wrong but he is reluctant to tell him he is doing it wrong incase Somchai loses face, instead he informs Somchai there may be a problem with the software but he knows how to fix it. Whilst pretending to fix the problem and then checking that it is functioning correctly he is showing Somchai how to operate the software, the end result is Somchai has been corrected without even knowing it and nobody had to lose face.
A car dealer promised a customer that his car would be ready for collection at 2 ‘o’ clock on Friday afternoon, actually the car was not there as there had been a delay and the dealer was only hoping that it would be there by 2 ‘o’ clock. When the customer called to enquire if the car would be ready as promised, the dealer told a white lie and said yes the car will be ready. The dealer told this white lie rather than risk losing face because he was not true to his original promise, if he told the customer to arrive later because there may be a delay he has already lost face, if he is lucky the car will arrive on time, if the car arrives late and the customer is left waiting he has lost face anyway but at least he has tried to avoid it.
You’ve probably noticed by now that Thai’s are very fond of status symbols, gold is not simply worn as a fashion accessory, many Thai people wear their gold day in day out, the bigger and more expensive the better. Expensive gold necklaces and large luxury cars are a classic “show of face”, respect and a show of wealth go hand in hand here in Thailand, it is instant face.
Keep your cool in Thailand.
The easiest way to lose face in Thailand is to lose your cool. Getting angry, shouting and being rude are a big no no. Politeness (kreng jai) is one of the better qualities shown by Thais while maintaining face, you rarely see Thai people having heated arguments, by doing so one or both of them will without doubt lose face. Keeping your cool is of the utmost importance for anyone visiting Thailand, lose your temper and you will definitely not make any progress with your complaints or grievances, you will be surprised just how unhelpful a Thai can be when faced with an irate farang [foreigner].
FACE IS NOT UNIQUE TO THAILAND.
You are probably thinking that the examples of “face in Thailand” are scenarios which could happen to anyone anywhere, and you are dead right, face is not just a Thai thing, it’s not just an Asian thing, everybody no matter where they are has a sense of worth, a reputation and pride which when tarnished, dented or challenged can lead to embarrassment or shame. Westerners place much less emphasis on face Than Thai’s do, westerners are less likely to be polite about poor service or rude behaviour, saving face is not considered when making a complaint. Referring to one of the examples above, a western car dealer would be more likely to explain to the customer that his car has been delayed, apologize for the delay and ask him to collect the car an hour later, he is more likely to consider the customers time and service than he is to worry about losing face.
Summary of “face” in Thailand.
There is no mystery surrounding the Thai concept of “face”, the most prominent aspect of face in Thailand is probably “self image” and upholding the image in the eyes of others, you might also call it “keeping up appearances”. The word ‘face’ covers a broad spectrum but includes image, reputation, respect, dignity and humility, all are common social and emotional states experienced by everybody the world over. Some or all of the elements of face, even if not appearing outwardly are traits which many Thai people display in their character, usually, the virtues and problems of face are more stubbornly upheld, more deeply felt and respected in Thailand than they are in western countries.
DEALING WITH FACE IN THAILAND.
Tourists or occasional visitors to Thailand need not worry too much about “face”, just keep in mind it is there, be polite, don’t raise your voice or get angry, be tactful if you have a complaint to make. For foreign employers the problem of dealing with face is a problem which must be negotiated every day, a balance must be achieved which allows you to maintain western standards and quality, man management must take the concept of face in to account if morale of the workforce is to be kept high.
Doing business in Thailand could be slow and tedious without some understanding of how face works in Thailand. Face building skills would be a very advantageous social tool if you wished to make a prospective buyer or seller more pliable.
Within mixed marriages (Thai wife and western husband) face is often a problem. The “Kreng Jai” attitude of Thais and the often more brash and “to the point attitude” of westerners often causes clashes. The more brash and sometimes short tempered habits of westerners are often offensive to Thais, by the same token, westerners are easily frustrated by the Thai need need to save face which often means being sparing with the truth and adopting a “mai pehn rai” (never mind) attitude towards minor problems.
Remember, when in Thailand be “kreng jai”, lose your head and you will lose your face, don’t lower your standards but alter your attitude, respect others and they will respect you.