Previously, I have never been much of a fan of on-line forums, as I am not one who puts much credence in unsubstantiated small talk. However, a friend, after reading a particular submission, convinced me to have a look when he claimed he had gained a
better understanding of Thai culture and subsequently why his relationship had ended on such a low note. After reading that submission and quite a few more on Stickman’s (and others’) site, I found it almost irresistible to laugh/sigh
or just feel sorry for many of the authors. Many (and I stress, not all) of the authors appear to be inexperienced with Thai culture or are as superficial in their own needs as they accuse the Thais of being. I am by no measure an expert on Thai
culture and have read many submissions which make me believe I am not alone in that respect. Nevertheless, I decided I would put in my 10-baht’s worth about the way Thais are often accused of being unable to cope with the truth and, in
many cases, wrongly labelled as compulsive liars.
It was at this point I was going to include one of those background narratives about myself. Would it convince readers that my opinion is to be highly regarded or would it, simply, provide a few thousand superfluous words to make my spiel longer? I decided it was not of any real relevance except to state that my involvement with Thailand spans some 20 years, half of which I have lived here with my wife and children. After all, it is only my opinion.
Throughout, I use the term “conflict” in the psychological rather than the physical sense.
In addition, I believe the principle of losing face is an extremely important and fundamental axis of the Thai and many other Asian cultures.
Disregarded truth is not a lie.
It is possible to accept something as being true but also disregard it. To accept a truth and disregard it is not the same as to believe it a lie but is to treat it as irrelevant. For instance, in a western court of law, some truths (evidences) are ruled as inadmissible and the jury instructed to disregard them. They are still true, but disregarded.
Although often extremely hard to differentiate between the two, disregarding the truth should not be interpreted as denying that same truth and, therefore, in effect, lying.
To understand the Thai ability to disregard truth we need look no further than their desire to not cause conflict and their belief that everything (including truth and conflict) is transient and everything is flexible and will, therefore, alter (both arising from the Buddhist influence in their culture). In Thai culture, it is acceptable to disregard a truth if it is in conflict now because, later, the same truth may not be in conflict. This is not to assume the truth will change, simply that it will no longer cause conflict.
For a Thai, to disregard a truth if it is conflict is NOT a lie or a deception but simply a means to avoid conflict and, if possible, loss of face. When used to prevent the loss of face in a discussion/argument with a non-Thai, this tactic often (for the non-Thai) inflames the situation. The non-Thai will often expect the truth to be accepted and mistakenly assume that the Thai is lying because this disregard (of the truth) goes against the western doctrine of “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.
This assumption is a major cause (possibly the major cause) of many conflicts in Thai-non Thai relationships. It is insulting to a Thai (just as it is to anyone from any culture) to be wrongly accused of lying.
Another area of considerable interest, and of definitely harder (some would say impossible) rationalisation, is the perceived ability of the Thai to often deliberately give an incorrect answer to even the simplest of questions rather than admit to not knowing the correct answer. This can also be seen as a face saving contrivance. To the Thai the loss of face by not knowing the answer is no more than the loss of face by having to ask. The potential loss of face for the questioner or the person questioned will often cause the Thai to be reluctant to ask even the most basic of questions. Many non-Thais, struggling with the Thai language, will experience this from a Thai friend when they ask the Thai to assist them in making enquiries. The Thai (possibly also struggling with a foreign language and not fully understanding the question) may not be sure they are asking the correct question and would prefer to avoid any possibility of causing conflict (in this case, the loss of face).
Coming to terms with this dilemma can be a particularly frustrating experience requiring a great deal of perseverance and calmness (two traits that the Thais have in abundance). Asking only direct, explicit questions and asking them of several people is, possibly, the best approach. The Thai often utilize this mechanism when asking for something or wanting a favour from friends. To ask the same of many friends does not imply a lack of regard for any or each friend. Instead, it is a means of reaching a personal consensus as to which of all the answers are correct whilst limiting the possibility of causing a face-losing situation and thereby adhering to the Buddhist principle of trying to avoid conflict.
Remember, though, there is also the possibility that an answer given incorrectly was given in good faith and believed to be true. We are not all perfect!
As frustrating as these cultural behaviours can be to a non-Thai they are nevertheless no more “wrong” with the Thai culture than many differences are “wrong” with non-Thai cultures.
Should you feel this opinion is in conflict with your own, please feel free to disregard it until the conflict resolves itself.
Disregarding some things is more difficult than disregarding others.