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The Truth About Thailand And Her Citizens, Part 2

  • Written by Lookpapa
  • March 25th, 2006
  • 11 min read

As I’ve foreshadowed in Part 1., the second topic in this series is to be The Face, as in saving, maintaining, losing or “breaking” it in Thai society.

OK, I know there has been so much said and written about this topic, not only in the Thai but generally in the oriental context.

And lets assume that basically most people who come to Thailand, irrespective for what duration of time, already know something about this subject and to be aware of its observance.

Still, it would be useful of us delving into this subject to have a better understanding.
A better understanding of ourselves too, so we can make some comparisons of how the two dynamics work or clash.

In the west, we’re not without pride, self esteem, self assurance (or lack of it), arrogance and dignity.

As a matter of fact a well rounded individual in the west must have a good dose of these qualities.

However it must be tempered by some humility, self awareness, repentance, admissions of errors etc.

I like to go back to our early years if developments, the formative years of our childhood, to see what kind of teachings, trainings took place which influenced us to become the adults we are.

Where I come from, we’re encouraged from an early age to admit to our mistakes, but more importantly to learn from them. In fact, we say if you never made a mistake, you never did anything.

We’re also encouraged to be inquisitive, don’t take things for granted, don’t be afraid to ask, as that is the only way to find out what you need to know.

In our school there is an interaction between teachers and students, which leads to learning the skills to be an independent thinker.

Later on in life, in our chosen careers, we’re encouraged to constantly upgrade our qualifications,so we can advance on merit, instead of just waiting for seniority. People in the West can reach high positions at a relatively young age, if they’re capable.

Now lets contrast this to the Thai scene. Children in Thailand are mollycoddled as toddlers, the only thing that’s drummed into them is respect for their elders. We have these little robots wai-ing and smiling to all and sundry and when they arrive in school they’re further regimented into an environment where authority, uniforms and uniformity, obedience and passive behavior during lessons are the norm. (I taught in Thai schools, I saw it with my own eyes). You never question the teacher, you would not want her to lose “face”. You misbehave in school, they report it back to your parents, who will lose “face”. So you get punished at home, not for whatever you might have done at school, but because you made your parents lose “face”. You grow up with this dread that losing “face” is the most terrible thing which could happen to you or which you could cause to others. So it starts there and it’s reinforced every step of the way.

When you enter the workforce, it’s just a different grade of “school”, you conform, you don’t question your supervisor, you wait till it’s time for your promotion, even if it takes ages, you operate in a way not to cause loss of “face “ to anyone and maintain your own “face”.

Then everyone is nicely pigeonholed in their respective places and the enterprise can slowly grind to wherever it goes, without any innovation from their employees.

Then lo and behold, along comes a “farang”, either as the new Manager or maybe consultant, can see that the place is going to the dogs and wants to set about instigating some reforms.

Now we’re talking serious trouble, both for farangs and Thais.

The first thing occurring now is a instant animosity for the reformer, not only because he is a farang, but because it’s felt that he does not understand how things are done in Thailand and changes imply that the employees were doing a lousy job, and it’s causing them loss of “face”.

So, the farang feels in a no win situation, because while he knows the changes are needed for the betterment of the enterprise, antagonizing the staff will not get their co-operation.
So now he has to pussyfoot around the sensibilities of the Thai staff and make sure there is no loss of “face” for anyone; not exactly the most effective way to advance the changes. All the time he is frustrated by having to adopt these methods in order to appease staff, who are insecure and suffer from an inferiority complex.

Well, now I’ve come to the real problem as I see it.

This business of Face, is really based on insecurities and an inferiority complex, acquired in the early development of the Thais.

This is not only apparent to me in a situation when Thais are interacting with farangs, although it is very pronounced then.

Thais are just as careful to observe “face” with their own kind.

Let me give you some examples to demonstrate the point. My wife needs to go to a Govt. Dept. to conduct some business, she dresses up to the ninths, putting on all her gold ornaments, I ask her, “are you going to a party", she replies, “no, I have to wear my “furniture" gold ornaments), so I’ll get good service and respect, otherwise if I don’t maintain my “face” I’ll be ignored”.

The Thais have to show face to earn respect from others. It’s is appearances rather than substance. People here judge a book by its cover. You show a big “Face”, wear expensive clothes, drive a Benz or BMW, wear a Rolex, go everywhere with an entourage, have a mia noi on your arm, all adds up to show “Face” and thereby earn respect.

Warning : Never ever break someone’s “face” in public.

Sometimes you read in the local press that a person got shot by another for causing loss of “face”.

It usually happens when the people involved are under the influence of alcohol or Yaa Baa.
In this state of mind some inhibitions are released by both parties, the offender causes the loss of “face”, the shooter can’t control himself to suffer the insult, and tragedy occurs.
In a similar situation between two westerners, there may have been some swear words exchanged even fisticuffs, but not likely a lethal ending.

Because of the number of intermarriages now in Thailand, it is essential for farangs to be aware of their spouses and her family’s concept of “face”.

It does not matter what kind of woman you’re intending to marry, the concept is the same. Better class girls, willing to date you, require different formalities to be observed at different stages of the courting process, otherwise they’ll lose “face” and the whole thing will fail before it had a chance. I’m talking about chaperoning, touching, sexual innuendo, proper behavior in public and in front of parents.

Even bargirls have a “face”, which must be maintained within the criteria they set for themselves.

For instance, if you have to dump them, it can’t be done in a way for her to lose “face” on front of her contemporaries.

EVERYONE in Thailand wants to feel that the pigeonhole they belong to must not be disturbed.

When we lived in Thailand, we had a close friendship with a farang /Thai couple and their child. The wife had a successful business (by Thai standards), set up with her husband’s funds and they looked like a well matched couple. They had some differences of opinions, which were not major, but the husband was at times irritated by the wife’s stubbornness in certain situations. As he considered me as his mentor, at times when we met, he’d try to shame his wife into doing things she did not want to do.

This made me uncomfortable as I could see that the wife was loosing face and can hardly contain her anger. After this occurred on 2 occasions, she became a bit withdrawn and distant in interacting with my wife and me, as she was always reminded in our presence of her loss of “face”.

Later on I got my farang friend to come to see me and told him privately that his method of trying to force his wife in public to do things are actually counterproductive. He was surprised at this, as this is not so unusual from where he hailed from, that is, shaming someone into action. He said he was many times encouraged this way to get off his backside and do things. Well in the West, we are also encouraged to swallow our pride to do things, to apologize, to admit mistakes and get on with it.

No big deal, right?

Well, for the Thais it is a big deal, like I said in the first Part, they have not grown up.

One of the contentious issues appearing on this website repeatedly, is the matter of dowry.
A lot of farangs, especially the ones who are 40 years or younger, seem to be unable to come to terms with this custom. Apart from the fact that they think they may be getting ripped off, the bride’s family’s reputation (read “face”) is at risk here in their own communities. In particular in the North East (Isaan), where most of the Thai brides come from, there is a special need for these families to show and maintain face. All their lives they have struggled to make ends meet, had many mouths to feed and finally if one of their daughters get lucky to find a farang husband, they can show off to their village.
Aside from getting some badly needed money, they gain in the esteem of the fellow villagers and gain “face”, because they gain “wealth” and that’s what makes people respect you. It is done in an obvious way, the money (cash ) is displayed for all to see, photographed for their albums, so they can always look at it and feel good about themselves.

The bride also gains “face”, having contributed to the easing of her parents’ financial plight.
The farang husband gains the biggest ” face “, as he is the benefactor and will be looked up to by everyone.

I know, I know, a lot of you reading now, thinking, that this is such a scam, and you are being led down the garden path. It may be true, but that is not the subject I’m discussing here, maybe some other time, here we are simply dealing with the “face” issue. After all, a lot of you who had argued about not paying dowry, did not argue on the basis of the girl or her parents not deserving, you argued on the basis of where you come from there is no such requirement.

This is where lack of understanding stands in the way of relationships between Thais and farangs.

If you insist that under no circumstances will you pay dowry, you’re making your bride a pariah in her family and community, she might marry you as she loves you, but she’ll forever resent you for making her and her family lose “face”.

Now I ask you, if everything’s being equal and you feel that you’re making the right move in your life, is the refusal worth the consequences? I would think not.

However, if you can find an orphan to marry, all your troubles will be over as far as in- law problems.

I was given this advice by a Thai business associate of mine many years ago; his wife was an orphan.

In conclusion, my best advice to farangs in Thailand: Keep complimenting your Thai counterparts, they need to have their egos massaged to overcome their feeling of inadequacies. If you must criticize, do it privately and constructively with a liberal mix of praise. Encourage them to exercise self analysis, open their minds to alternatives, and show these things by example.

Until next time…


Stickman's thoughts:

Comments to follow….usual story, I m as busy as hell!