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Giving, Saving and Maintaining Face in Thailand

  • Written by John Daysh
  • November 25th, 2010
  • 9 min read


On one of our frequent morning bicycle rides in Thailand my darling Thai wife had what could easily have been a fatal accident. While she learned a valuable lesson on the importance of wearing a protective cycle helmet, I learned a valuable lesson on how the concept of “face” works in everyday situations in Thailand.

In “The Land of Smiles” you will often see street-cleaners in bright orange or yellow vests sweeping the footpaths, gutters and roads. It is not one of the most prestigious jobs in the world and on that particular morning we came across two old ladies who were probably in their sixties and probably working in that job because they no longer had family supporting them. It is a sad but not uncommon sight. As we rode along, one of these old ladies suddenly stepped out onto the road and pushed her broom out so that it tangled with my wife’s bike, sending her flying over the handle-bars. As her head crashed against the curb I leapt off my bike in panic and was beside her in an instant. Fortunately her cycle helmet took the impact and apart from a grazed knee and bruised elbow and shoulder she was fine. My panic, turned to relief and then to anger. Why anger? I looked up to see that the lady whose careless behavior had caused the accident was standing there with a smile on her face, giggling. My blood hit boiling point in an instant and I roughly barked at her, “What the hell are you laughing at? You think this is funny?” She probably didn’t understand me but my anger was clear. She giggled again. I turned back to my wife who was tight-lipped and giving me that subtle look of disapproval that I know so well as I’ve blundered my way through the minefield of Thai cultural sensitivities. She quickly got to her feet, gave the old lady a smile and hiding her pain, got back on her bike and rode off ahead of me.

When we got home she said this to me: “Honey, she didn’t think it was funny. She was embarrassed. That was why she was smiling and giggling. That was her way of saving face. You should not get angry. Now you lose face and I am with you so I lose face too.” We replaced her helmet, which had a big crack in it, that afternoon and despite her badly grazed knee she insisted on riding again the following morning. She led the way and was on the lookout for the old lady. When she spotted her she stopped, smiled and had a brief conversation to say that she was fine. I forced myself to give my best smile and off we went. The next morning when we saw her again she stopped us and insisted we take a big bag of mangoes, despite the obvious disparity in our wealth. My wife accepted and there were smiles all round. Every time we see her now she gives a wave and a warm smile that I make sure I return with interest.

The concept of “face” in Thailand is fundamental to the way the Thai people interact with each other in a million ways every day. As a foreigner either living and working in Thailand or vacationing here it is vital that you have a basic understanding of how you can give, maintain and save face to ensure you have harmonious relations with the locals. In this context the word “face” refers to the value or standing of someone in the eyes of others. The most appropriate synonyms are probably “status,” “prestige,” or “position.” Thai society places much more emphasis on the collective than the individual so Thais tend not to be overly judgmental or critical of others as it is seen to be harmful to the group as a whole.

No matter how wealthy or poor, educated or ignorant, diligent or lazy, everyone will be offered a degree of dignity by all others. There is an acceptance that life can be economically challenging in a developing nation and that everyone has to make a living one way or another. At least on the surface it is acceptable, for example, for a young Thai woman to be seen on the arm of an older foreign gentleman and it is not an uncommon sight. Some may not necessarily approve but the couple will not be treated with contempt by Thais but with a level of outward respect and dignity. Privately, they may disapprove but they will do nothing that will result in the loss of face. The Thais believe that in making someone else lose face you also lose face yourself. Some people will, in fact, admire the lady’s ability or good fortune to have found a partner with the economic means to provide financial support. In that sense she gains some face.

So, how does this complex business of giving, maintaining and saving face operate in practical terms? By showing an outward appearance of calm and self-dignity; by offering or accepting an “out” that excuses one's decision or behavior; and by understanding the use of a smile and offering it appropriately. Sound complicated? No, it isn’t. In many ways it is not dissimilar to how we operate on a social level in the Western world.

A while back I was walking down Sukhumvit Soi 11 in Bangkok with some friends currently backpacking in Thailand. This street is home to a couple of Bangkok’s premier nightclubs, an excellent underground pub with a live band, and a couple of cheap outdoor drinking establishments where you can catch up with friends and watch street life unfold. Street-food vendors catering to hungry locals and tourists line parts of the already crowded sidewalk, tucked hard up against the edge, precariously close to the drop down to the road where cars, tuk-tuks, and motorbikes squeeze their way through. There is one particular vendor who always gives me a big smile and I often stop to purchase some pork balls or a sausage on a skewer dipped in sweet-chili sauce; perfect before or after a couple of cold beers. As I made my way towards her she was standing with a patient smile looking at her food cart, which had had one leg knocked off by a passing car and had tipped over onto the road. Scores of skewered pork balls and hot-dogs lay ruined in the street. No snack for me!

The offending car was blocking the road while the driver and street vendor seemed to be having a very calm and amicable discussion with light smiles playing on their lips. They negotiated a settlement, the driver handed over some money and a business card, and then he drove cautiously off into the night. The lady vendor set about cleaning up with a rueful but accepting smile. Her trade was ruined for the night. A few of her friends from neighboring food carts pitched in to help and they were all soon laughing and joking. What struck me was that at no point was any anger or frustration displayed. There was no shouting, finger pointing, or aggressive behavior. They dealt with it with a level of maturity, almost like adults. It made me reflect on a couple of similar incidents I have witnessed in two different Western countries. In both incidents the participants behaved with an adolescent lack of patience as they shouted, accused and almost came to blows. In both cases the Police were required to sort things out before insurance companies got involved to add more paperwork and frustration to the scene.

As I sat on the other side of the road with my backpacker friends, nursing a cold beer, I reflected on what I had just seen. My conclusion was that the calm and dignified interaction, rather than confrontation, had much to do with the Thai concept of giving, maintaining and saving face. The driver made an error of judgment. He was embarrassed. The lady vendor could have jumped up and down, shouted and accused, and expressed her anger at his carelessness. She did not. She remained calm and allowed the driver the opportunity to save face by having a calm and rational conversation at the end of which he paid for the damage and loss of business. They smiled politely throughout and left on friendly terms. Then she had to clean up the mess. Scraping food off the road is not the most fun or dignified thing to be doing. So what happened? Her friends joined her and started having sanook or fun so that she saved face. Of course everyone was watching what was unfolding, especially the foreign tourists who passed by. My friends were expecting something explosive to happen and were even a little disappointed that there wasn’t really much excitement at all. Then the bizarre sight of an elephant trekking along the street cheered them up a bit. Bangkok isn’t boring after all!

The lesson in this is to remain calm and dignified at all times. Even if you feel that you have been wronged in some way in an interaction with a Thai, there is absolutely no point is showing anger. You will not get anywhere with any other approach than the one described above. If you are dealing with a Thai in Thailand, you have to do it the Thai way. Expressing anger and annoyance will get you nothing but trouble because this will cause a loss of face for the Thai person and what could be a straightforward situation with a straightforward solution can quickly escalate into something very nasty and as a foreigner you quite simply will not win.

Most conflicts between Thais and foreigners initially come about through a misunderstanding over a service promised or a contentious financial transaction. In many cases they involve both. The first thing to consider is whether it is worth worrying about. Sometimes it is better to just walk away from a conflict situation, especially if you don’t feel you can handle it in a ‘Thai way.’ If it is something you feel strongly about then you need to think about what you have to gain and what you have to lose. If you still want a resolution then proceed with caution – and with a smile!


Stickman's thoughts:

That's a nice description of how it is supposed to work. The sad thing is that it doesn't always work like this. Have a mismatch in class of the people involved, throw a foreigner in or just have one party who is a schmuck and it isn't nearly as smooth as you describe. But often things do work out well and when they do that's nice.