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Thai Thoughts And Anecdotes Part 73

  • Written by Dana
  • December 27th, 2004
  • 8 min read


Thai Thoughts And Anecdotes #73


YES AND NO

OK, let's talk about the concept and usage and results of Face in Thailand. First we'll play an imagination game. Let's imagine that one Thai department head calls another Thai department head on business. Simple right? Not in Thailand. Let's imagine that each department head is incompetent and knows it and only got the job because of connections and corruption. Naturally they don't want to be reminded of this. In addition; one department head has dominion over the other. They aren't equal. Plus one department head knows that the other department head's wife is trash. He knows this because it is his daughter. Etc. Now the stage has been set in Thailand for the complicated game of Face where the object is not to hurt anyone's feelings. So since not hurting someone's feelings is the paramount part of the department head to department head communication that means every other part of the process comes in second; things like clearness of thought, accuracy of data, presentation of ideas, conviction of feelings, and objective analysis. All of these wacky western notions come in second to not hurting anyone's feelings. So in the interests of not hurting the other department head's feelings and by the way not losing your own job it might actually make more sense sometimes to say Yes when you actually mean No and to say No when you actually mean Yes and to say Yes when the real answer is No and to say No when the real answer is Yes and to sometimes say neither Yes or No artfully when it is not exactly clear which answer will benefit you or benefit the other guy or benefit you both. Confused? Of course you are! Since I am a westerner I can explain this to you with unambiguous clearness of thought. The reason you are confused is because this is confusing. Think I am being silly? Try to get a Thai to make a simple declarative statement like "The reason you are confused is because this is confusing." They probably can't do it. And the reason Thais have such a hard time making simple declarative statements is that the value of the statement is never as important as the value of the result. Face is factored into everything. The problem is that adding Face to the linguistic water doesn't make it clearer; it makes it muddier. In Thailand you (and they) are always dealing with muddy linguistic water.

OK, you thought my example was too extreme? Let's try this. Two Thai governmental or corporate department heads are talking to each other. Neither knows the other. Both are saints. People of virtue. Both are also mentally stable and open minded and well educated and generous with new ideas and able to consider criticism within the context of the job necessity of getting the most for the least in the most ethical manner possible. But remember, they don't know each other. So they don't know this about each other. So here we go again. They are Thai. The concept of Face is in their bones. So they will hedge their bets by taking the middle road. Couching their responses in ways that could mean Yes and might mean No and could be interpreted later to have meant No but might sound right now like Yes. Etc. And to further cover their asses when they hang up they will creatively and artfully and busily do approximately nothing so that no performance commitments can be held against them until they figure which way the wind is blowing. In other words nothing gets done. You think the Thais don't work hard? Oh yes they do! They work like demons at the Face dance. I think one reason the west might have given up on this nonsense a long time ago is that we just don't have the stamina for this dance.

And then there is the ultimate concept of Face or what is sometimes called Saving Face which is to just disappear. I once went into the Hopf House Brewery restaurant on Beach road in Pattaya around 2pm to ask if I needed to make reservations for dinner that evening. There were three employees who all received at one time or another the inquiry from me. One at a time they all just disappeared. It was explained to me later by an expat that in some complicated notion of arcane Thai thinking that they were participating in face saving. If the Thais think that they save face by running and hiding they need to re-examine what it means to have character. Character is when you stand and deliver and take responsibility for your actions. Not when you run and hide. Thais love to blather on about how special and unique the Thais and Thailand are. I think of them as the 'run and hide' people. Whose face did they think they were saving? I'd like the smartest person in Thailand to email me and explain this to me because it makes no sense. Oh that's right I almost forgot. Communication in Thailand is not about making sense; it is about not hurting the other person's feelings or not hurting your own feeling's or not hurting the feeling's of both of you or not . . Oh, forget it. Think I am being unfair? Consider this. Thai mechanics for airliners, and Thai pilots, and Thai air traffic controllers, and Thai surgeons, and Thai police investigators, and Thai food inspectors are all products of a run and hide culture that places face above accuracy of thought or deed. Scared now? You should be!

And please don't respond with the word Culture. That is just the placebo salve that the politically correct smear on every social wound of incomprehension. In the past I used to respond to this western blathering about Culture and ask for some erudition on the subject. I found that the person using the word Culture invariably couldn't string together three sentences on the subject. It was just knee jerk Pavlovian expostulation to no purpose except to get the eye of the cute little girl in the backpack. In the last 10,000 years thousands of cultures and tribes and nations and groups and languages have come and gone. All things are not equal. Not everyone is competitive. In order for there to be winners and survivors there have to be losers. People who can not communicate with each other clearly are not going to be on the winning side of anything. Competitive international contract negotiations and fulfilment and successful politics requires communication between both or all parties of minimum absolutes. Both parties must know that Yes means Yes and that No means No. Every time. That is not possible in cultures or languages that add the concept of Face to the linguistic mix. Can you imagine if computer software was written like this? Where Yes sometimes meant No and No could mean No but it might also possibly mean Yes? Computer programs wouldn't work would they? Well, language is the computer program for a civilized society! There is nothing more basic to language construction than the concept of Yes and No. People mixing in Face lose the ability to make the most basic language conclusions.

Think I am picking on the Thais? No I am not. I am just using them as an example of a common problem in cultural social development. If people talking to each other can no longer distinguish between Yes and No than we might as well go back to the Stone age and start over. Want to have some fun? Don't believe me? Here is a question of a common construction that involves no face: "You don't really have this–do you?" Now plot how many different answers you could get. Now add face to the mix and plot again. Good Luck. And I hope you are not a surgeon trying to order blood for a 2pm surgery. In my own business here in the States I have talked to people; that is, attempted to take to contract (I am a salesman) individuals from 52 countries in the last year. Many of these countries my company voluntarily no longer solicits business from because the responses we get to direct questions as a part of the sales/contract process are incomprehensible gibberish where No can mean Yes and Yes can mean No and sometimes either one at various and mysterious times can mean absolutely nothing. Recently my company has stopped doing business with the Haitians and the Jamaicans and the Vietnamese and the Chinese for this reason. We are not even sure they know what they are talking about when they are talking to each other. To have our signatures on documents where the other party can not distinguish between Yes and No or see the value in being specific places us at unacceptable risk. So our services which would benefit these people are not offered anymore. Too bad.

As long as Thailand hangs on to the concept of Face in language Thai to Thai and Thai to the rest of the world communication can not be dependable or competitive. Too bad for Thailand. This is an example of a language de-evolving. Evolving languages get more specific and dependable. Languages that are not evolving are symptoms of cultures and peoples and points of view that are not evolving. It is now a competitive global world. You are either getting ahead or losing ground. Thailand is going backwards. The world will rumble and stumble forward and leave behind the people who couldn't decide when to use Yes and when to use No.

And that is what I really think on this issue; you know, unless you might get your feelings hurt. And then I mean the opposite!

Stickman's thoughts:

The concept of face is good, but in practice it can be crippling.