Culture of losing face in Thailand – Why is it so important?

Cult of face

 

Who am i?

Greetings from The Netherlands and welcome to my blog! I am a 3rd year International Hospitality Management student at NHL Stenden in The Netherlands. Currently doing International Relations as one of my minors in Bangkok, Thailand. Due to the pandemic my minor is taking place online, therefore, I am in The Netherlands at the moment.  I will tell you more about myself later in this blog.

Have fun reading it!

Why Asian Culture?

You probably want to know why I am interested in Asian culture. I wish I could say it’s simple but it’s not. I am Korean but I was born in Kyrgyzstan and my native language is Russian. When people hear that, confusion is all I can see on their faces. Kyrgyzstan is an Asian country but it was part of The Soviet Union, its culture is very different from most Asian countries and was influenced by Russia, which is a very interesting combination. Since I was raised in a Korean family with the influence of Russian and Kyrgyz  cultures, i can relate to particular things from absolutely different cultures, countries and parts of the world.

Different cultures around the globe

 

Siia Naa – To lose face

The topic of this blog is the culture of losing face in Thailand, the first time I heard about it, I wasn’t confused or frustrated, because in Kyrgyz culture is it such a common thing. Thai people strongly believe in the concept of saving face, that concept means that if you do not want to embarrass yourself or other people, you have to avoid confrontation, be careful with bringing up sensitive or negative topics in conversation, people like that never express firm opinions or convictions.

As an example, just imagine I am driving my car down the road and I’m lost, I stop for directions and ask a Thai man or woman “Where is this place?”, they say to me “Go down the road and turn right”. But in fact, they do not know, they’re saving face by lying to me rather that telling the truth, because they do not want to embarrass themselves by admitting the fact that they don’t know the direction.

Losing face: Important etiquette in Asia

Losing face: Important etiquette in Asia

 

Let me tell you a funny story, maybe it will help me convince you that some people really do not want to lose their face. I was visiting my relatives in Moscow this summer, my cousin and I went for a walk with our grandma, we were fooling around, laughing and doing weird things, suddenly my grandma just shouted at us and told us to stop. I was extremely confused and said “Why? We are just having fun. Is it because people are watching? Well, I do not care”, my grandma was shocked but didn’t say anything. You can tell my family is definitely related to Eastern culture.

Thai culture

It is a big deal when talking about any Asian culture. For example, most people in the world do not like to be embarrassed or look like a fool but in Thailand, they take it to a new level, they keep saying “yes” even if they mean “no”.

Thais also believe that you have to help others and save their face, If you lower someone’s face, that means you are attacking their reputation, honor and social standing.

Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

You should keep that quote in mind, while interacting with people in Thailand, if someone loses their face because of you, it can lead to bad consequences even if you had good intentions or did it by accident.

Face as an abstract concept certainly has nothing to do with bodily characteristics. In that context, face can be defined as a mix of social status, reputation, influence, dignity, and honor. Taking away someone’s face makes them look bad in the eyes of their peers. Saving face, or “building face,” boosts their self-esteem, which is obviously a win-win situation for everyone.

As a foreigner, you might think that it’s not important to know some parts of the culture but In extreme cases, some people prefer suicide over experiencing a significant loss of face. So do not forget that your actions could have an impact on feelings of others. I hope this information will help you have better interactions with locals and avoid awkward situations.

What you may consider a kind gesture (e.g., alerting a gentleman that he has toilet paper stuck to his shoe) may cause him personal shame and face loss. Allowing him to trail that toilet paper down the hallway may cause less damage in some cases! He’ll ultimately figure it out on his own and lose less face as a result, especially since no one else seems to have noticed. Honesty is not always the best option. Unless you’re already really close, avoid pointing out others’ flaws and blunders (especially in front of other people).

It’s never a good idea to start a conflict anywhere. In Southeast Asia, however, arguing in public is not only humiliating for you, but it also generates humiliation and discomfort for spectators. As a result, while they may blame you for losing your temper in public, they are also embarrassed on your behalf. It’s usually advisable to maintain an outward calm demeanor during a quarrel or to wait until you have the privacy of your own area to resolve the conflict.

East VS West

I have been living in The Netherlands for almost 3 years and definitely can tell that western people might think that such a thing is strange and even ridiculous, here in Europe it is extremely important to stand up for yourself, have your own opinion and point of view, and be straightforward. It is verry common to discuss a certain topic and have a heated discussion explaining your perception of the subject. Meanwhile in Asia, it is considered rude and potentially volatile if you raise your voice or disagree with something. Thai people think losing your temper causes a loss of your face in front of society and some individuals may respond in dramatic ways. Slight humiliations, such as stumbling or falling, may evoke laughter from a Thai crowd.

Although those who are “brutally honest” or who get down to business are valued in the West, the opposite is often true in Asia. Before getting down to business, important meetings are preceded by hours of trust-building interaction and small talk—perhaps even beverages. Whereas Western people prefer getting straight to the business.

As an example, you can you can ask a Thai person to help you and they will even if they do not feel like doing it or do not have time to help you out. Speaking from my own experience, in Europe people just say “No” if they can.

How to save face in Thailand

Here is a quick guide on how to behave in Thailand in order to respect the culture and people there.

  • Raising your voice in front of others is strictly prohibited. By causing a commotion, bystanders lose face as a result of your shame. They might even flee the scene in order to save face! Even if you win one argument, you’ll lose the game overall.
  • Despite how stressful it may be, keep patient and cool until both parties reach an agreement. You are supposed to peacefully add another grin to the “Land of Smiles” in Thailand.
  • A anxious giggle or laugh might suggest that someone is growing uncomfortable in several Asian countries. When faced with a potential loss of face, or even when compelled to say “no,” people frequently chuckle. If you ask for something that isn’t on the menu, you may be told “maybe tomorrow” rather than being told they won’t be able to supply it.
  • Even if you are correct and your complaint is valid, a minor concession will allow the other person to save face, which is beneficial for future interactions. Always consider how you may assist the other party in preserving their reputation.

Hope you had a good time learning more about Thai culture!

Don’t forget to smile)

Alina Kan

References:

Mcbride, J. (n.d.). What Does Losing Face Mean? YOYO Chinese. Retrieved October 20, 2021, from https://yoyochinese.com/blog/Losing-Face-Chinese-Culture

Putri, E. (2018, September 3). A Guide to “Saving Face” in Southeast Asia. Culture Trip. Retrieved October 20, 2021, from https://theculturetrip.com/asia/articles/an-insiders-guide-to-saving-face-in-southeast-asia/

Rodgers, G. (2020, February 26). Saving face and losing face. Tripsavvy. Retrieved October 20, 2021, from https://www.tripsavvy.com/saving-face-and-losing-face-1458303

Saving face. (n.d.). Lonely Planet. Retrieved October 20, 2021, from https://www.lonelyplanet.com/a/nar/1ed62df1-6c74-4e5d-87bb-1e47359d9db4/357592

 

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