Thai Lies And Wondering Why
It’s is a common theme throughout the posts on Stickman’s site. The lies, the deceit, the avoidance of the truth, the sheer inability of Thais to be straightforward and honest. How many relationships between a Thai and a farang have foundered on this subject? If reading Stickman is a guide then it would seem to be a huge proportion, if not all, of Thai / Farang relations have suffered at some point or other from the Thais’ flexibility with the truth.
Yet is a distorted view because it looks at the issue only from the viewpoint of the farang. What we never read in these submissions is the Thai person’s, usually BG, take on the relationship. No doubt about it – if the Thai girl were writing to Stickman, her interpretation would be totally different to the contributors to Mr. Stick. Whenever and where ever there is dispute, this is true.
So then why is there such a gulf in expectations?
Some would say it’s because of the type of people we’re dealing with. What can you expect from a bar girl? To which others respond with, what can you expect from the type of person who hangs out with bar girls? But reading Stick’s column, it’s plain to see that this issue affects all kinds of people – the expat, the tourist, the retiree, the businessman, those with money to burn and those on a budget.
While Westerners place so much importance on truthfulness and honesty in their lives, they expect their Thai girlfriend, business partner, associates to behave in the same way. The evidence of Stickman is that they do not.
As a farang you are brought up to believe in honesty, justice and personal integrity. You might well say that you see little of it in the West, but the foundations of democracy are based upon these characteristics. Farangs are taught that all men are equal in the eyes of the law, and that all men will be judged by their peers. Tribalism, feudalism have all but disappeared from the West, and one of the greatest labels that can be placed on a man is that he is honest. Take a look at western politicians. Rarely is the question asked – is he or she a good president or prime minister, in the sense of being good at doing the job. But does the politician have integrity? Is she or he dishonest?
The situation in Iraq is a good example. Whether or not Bush and Blair are doing a good job is of secondary importance to most commentators. Did they lie to us? This takes up more column inches in the newspapers. These qualities are of prime importance in Farangland, and that is how we measure up our individuals.
Consider your position on the issue of double-pricing in Thailand. Almost every objector to double-pricing does so, not on the grounds that they can’t afford it, but that it is unfair. In their own country there is double-pricing, for example, the old folks travel free or at a reduced rate on public transport. So the concept of paying more than someone else for the same service or product is not an issue if it is seen to be just. Witness the flurry of replies to Stickman on the guy who traded blows with a motor cycle taxi rider over the great sum of 10 baht. All who supported the guy did so on the grounds of ‘the principle of the thing’.
In Thailand a separate set of values have more importance. Few people march up and down the streets calling for justice in Thai society. Those that do tend to disappear, and not many questions are asked. A blind eye is turned to the corrupt politician and policeman. No one is forced from their positions for having a mistress or for being unusually wealthy. Integrity and honesty does not make it to the top of the list of personable qualities, as Mr. Farang would expect.
Many Thais tell me that such and such is ‘not fair’, but they don’t have the righteous indignation of Mr. Farang. They may grumble to themselves but almost always accept it. Foreigners in Thailand feel they are especially picked on for the unfair treatment, but it happens to locals just as often if the perpetrator thinks they can get away with it. A taxi driver once told me, ‘why not, they have money’, and he wasn’t talking about farangs, he meant the majority of Thais.
In Thailand, as is regularly noted in Stickman’s columns, the most important quality is to have good face. Prestige is more important that integrity. And closely associated with face and the need to maintain it, is the requirement of not to rock the boat – not to question too deeply. To be a good team player and not an aggressive individual.
Now you may be thinking it should be possible to have all these good qualities, they are not mutually exclusive. One can be both a good team member and honest at the same time. So why doesn’t it work out that way?
Because in Thailand the notion of ‘greng jai’ gets in the way. Now there you are with a big gang of your mates, and one of them says something that is obviously wrong. He is soon put right. He is challenged and forced to defend his position. It happens day in and day out. It’s part of the ebb and flow of living and farangs learn to deal with it. Thailand is different. ‘Greng jai’ means that you would not put someone else in an uncomfortable spot. To do so, you lose brownie points in the estimation of your colleagues for causing discomfort – the complete opposite of Farangland culture.
‘Greng jai’ then leads to the situation that somebody tells you something untrue in order to save your face! Weird or what?
Religious beliefs also play a big part in the cultural makeup of Thai society. A monk once told me this story. A, B and C are neighbours. C runs a garage service from his house and there is a lot of noise all night long and disturbance throughout the day. Neighbour A has no problem with this setup. He is interested in the comings and goings of the business. Neigbour B hates the situation as he cannot sleep at night. How to resolve this conflict? If this was Farangland then neighbour C would probably end up before the courts on some noise abatement charge. But according to the monk, it was B who had the problem because he couldn’t calm his anguish. Neighbour A had managed to do it, so B was obviously not trying hard enough.
In the Dharma Moments column of the Bangkok Post, the writer explained what a good Buddhist should do in this following situation: At work you are passed over for promotion and do not get the pay rise your work deserves. Instead it goes to the boss's favourite employee. According to the writer, if this happens to you and you get uptight about it, then you have the problem. The solution: just get on with it and calm your heart.
If this is what Buddhism teaches then it goes a long way to explain why Thais avoid confrontation. Otherwise, they are the ones perceived to have the problem. And a good way to avoid confrontation is to avoid the truth, tell little white lies – or maybe even whoppers – anything that will pour oil on troubled waters.
Last night I am chatting with my Thai sister-in-law. I tell her that the traffic was bad getting out of the soi at eight o’clock in the mornings. There are always school kids milling about. ‘Yes’ she replies, ‘The school at the mouth of the soi opens at 8am’. Now I know and she knows that the school starts at 7am. But she puts this into the conversation 1) to stop me from complaining why the kids are out of school 2) to stop me from complaining why the traffic is so bad 3) to make a smooth conversation without any disagreements. Now, this is such a trivial example but when it gets multiplied a hundred times throughout the day by different people, the effect is to wear you down, it’s tiresome and annoying. And after a few months of it Mr Farang is ready to blow his top over ten baht.
So who is right and who is wrong?
Well the fact is nobody. It is just different perspectives. Different set of values. You get upset because your girlfriend didn’t tell you the truth about her husband in Isaan, and she gets upset because she didn’t want you to be angry. You externalise it and fly into a rage, she internalises it and pouts. Sounds familiar?
Over time I came to realise that the first step in dealing with the lies and deceit is to understand why it arises. Often it is to protect you! Having got past that stage, I became less confrontational, and a virtuous cycle develops. I’m more understanding of the Thais perspective, so I become less confrontational. They in turn learn that because I am more calm, I don’t need to be protected from the truth. So they become a little more honest with me. Because they are more honest, I don’t get into the big rages. It’s a win-win situation.
Like many of Stickman’s readers I went through all the phases – initial excitement at such an exotic country, a desire to learn more about the people and culture, followed by disillusionment when it didn’t seem so perfect, then anger at deceit and lies. After living here for a number of years I was ready to give up and go back to Farangland. But now I’ve moved on to a stage of acceptance of the way people are. Does that mean I just take the crap that comes? I don’t know. But I think I’m better equipped to deal with it when it happens.
I thoroughly enjoyed this and believe it provides a very good explanation of things, one of the best I have read. Now it is up to individuals as to whether they accept the Thai values and their different way of thinking.