Losing face in Thailand is BS
Often times when I get into conversations with guys at the bar, I let them share all of their “expertise” while I just sit back and listen. Naturally everyone thinks they’re an expert, but I’m not very confrontational so I let people go on and on regardless of whether or not they’re right or wrong. One topic of conversation amongst expats has confused me more than any other; the element of Thai Face.
So as most of you know, if you lower someone’s “face” you are believed to be attacking their reputation, their social standing, and even their honor. Their reactions to this vary greatly, but extremely volatile reactions to losing face aren’t uncommon. You can trigger the emotion accidentally, or just with a simple culture clash on humor or attitude. Most Thai’s and Asians will usually be open minded enough to understand the culture clash and will realize that there were no bad intentions, but others won’t be so forgiving and may become hostile.
You may innocently correct someone, not to be an ass, but because you figure they’d appreciate the correct information. But that could actually be enough to set someone off who feels they lost face if their friends are around. There are infinite examples of a westerner doing something without any bad intentions and finding themselves in a bad situation. You could be at dinner and a Thai can offer to pay; trying to be as nice as possible you insist on paying. Depending on the situation he may feel that he has lost face. It goes on and on but you get the idea.
There are really only two ways a conversation with a supposed “expat veteran” can go when it comes to “losing face.” I’m talking about the man who has been coming to or living in Thailand for decades and thinks he is the official Mr. Thailand; we all know the type.
1) They will tell you that it’s important to understand its existence so that you can avoid problems. They will say that it’s not necessarily right or fair, but you need to be aware so you don’t set the wrong person off.
2) They will tell you that you must respect it and appreciate it as a part of the culture. IF you insinuate that you think it’s a bit ridiculous at times they will chastise you as not being tolerant of cultures that are significantly older than your own.
So in my opinion the 1st line of thinking, basically warning you about it, is dead on. Newcomers to Thailand or anywhere in Asia for that matter should indeed know the deal so they can avoid a confrontation.
And in my opinion the 2nd line of thinking is a total joke. I’m sorry but when someone gets the crap kicked out of them because someone felt a bit embarrassed by something they said, we have a phrase for that where I come from and it’s called, “acting like a f’n 5 year old.” I respect the culture when it comes to certain aspects of Face as it relates to being aware of other people’s feelings and never intentionally trying to embarrass someone or put them down. I dig that! But when someone uses the excuse of “Face” as a justification for doing something totally crazy or even violent simply because they felt that someone was being a bit condescending towards them, I have a huge problem with that. We have another saying for that kind of behavior where I come from and it’s called, “Assault," and it results in a year in lock up. Try telling a rational judge or jury back home that you only cracked someone’s head open because they were making fun of you. But what bothers me even more than the fact that there are people around who don’t’ feel the need to control their anger and their temper are the expats who furiously defend these types of actions. You hear of many stories where a Farang was beaten because of a Thai face issue; but the reactions to these stories range from: “You really have to be careful with things like that,” to “well, I’m sure he got what he deserved.” Sorry but nobody deserves to be physically harmed because their jokes were misinterpreted as being offensive. Even if someone was acting like an ass they don’t deserve that.
There isn’t a lot that can be done about it; is the way it is. But that does not mean we have to like it or that we can’t discuss the ridiculousness of it amongst ourselves. Face is a somewhat controversial topic so I’m sure there will be some who can’t wait to disagree with me, bring it on….Comment section below. I once heard that a Westerner was imprisoned in Indonesia and was very quickly proven to be not guilty. However they kept the man locked up for a few extra weeks to save face for the Police Chief who helped bring him in. I will always be aware of this type of thing so I can avoid problems, but I’ll never appreciate it, respect it, or like it.