The importance of saving face in Thai society

Saving Face in Thai society

Thai society puts strong emphasis on one’s reputation. The best way to maintain a good reputation is through being polite and avoiding conflict. You should try not to put anybody in a situation where they lose honor and have to “save face.” Sound difficult? It can be a bit of a minefield to negotiate sometimes, but by following a few simple steps, you can maintain a good reputation and win the respect of your Southeast Asian love.

As in all cultures, in Thailand, your social status in the society is a direct consequence of your reputation and the amount respect you command from others. While this social construct also exists in rest of the world to some extent, Thai culture takes things a little further. Often, people do not tell the truth in a given situation so as they do not have to start a conflict or cause another person even the slightest bit of embarrassment. This can be quite difficult for foreigners to understand and causes a great deal of friction in relationships, and we’ll explore the thorny issue more here.

As counterproductive as it may seem, in most cases, when someone is lying to you, it is simply to avoid humiliation and embarrassment that would arise from telling the truth, which is also known as “saving face.” In some cases it might just be to avoid the discussion that would follow by telling the truth, and we do this ourselves all the time. But since the Thai place such a great value on social cohesion and politeness, they are forced by their culture to tell these little white lies more often. This might also be because of the way the Thai families work. In a traditionally structured Thai family, the head of the household typically has the last say in all important matters, and she/he knows their point of view will likely fall to deaf ears anyways, so they lie and say they agree with the group to save face.

Let us think of a real world example of this. Let’s say you pick where your beautiful, smiling Thai girlfriend are going to have dinner that evening. You want to go to the Frog and Shamrock, your favorite watering hole. It is cheap beer night and there is a game on television that your team desperately needs to win, lest they face humiliation, relegation or public flogging. You plan on getting drunk as a skunk and singing your club’s fight songs while stuffing your face with wings, chips, and lager.

You ask your girlfriend if that sounds like as much fun for her as it is for you.

“Yes, of course, darling,” she demurely replies, smiling coquettishly, “I’d love to get wasted on watery beer with you and your western friends.”

“Awesome,” you say.

Well, you get to the bar and she’s still smiling but it looks a little forced. Your mate Jimmy is there and he likes to have a pint or six and he’s well into his cups already, and he starts hitting on your girl. He’s a good lad at heart so you buy him another and send him on his way, before ordering some spicy chicken wings and chips and another round for the table.

Trying to be a nice guy, you lean over and ask your still-smiling Thai girlfriend if she’s having a good time.

“Yes,” is all she says.

Well, the first half of the match goes well for the locals and the drinks are flowing and the fans are rowdy and the food is terrible and you are eating too much anyway and your lady is hoping for a good plate of noodles and maybe a glass of white wine, and the Frog and Shamrock has neither. It does have a few Thai girls, though, one is a prostitute and the other a transgender “ladyboy,” in the local parlance, so she doesn’t have much in common with either one of them.

Still, she says she’s having a good time.

The match is finally finished and the hour is late and you ask her if she wants to go home or go out for another round, a nightcap, maybe?

“Whatever you want, my darling,” she smiles.

So you and the boys (plus whatever random ladies the crew has managed to pick up over the course of the evening) head down to the Walkabout or the Cathouse or the Oblong Nipple, it doesn’t really matter as long as the beer is cold. After a few more pitchers, your girlfriend gently suggests that it is time you head home.

“I thought you were having a good time,” you say.

“I am. I just think its time to go home.”

Because the world is already more than a little fuzzy around the edges and gravity seems uneven and strange, making walking in a straight line damn near impossible, you agree with her.

When you get home, she explodes. Explodes quietly, most often, because she doesn’t want to be heard shouting and lose face. “You are disgusting,” she says with a smile, he voice seething with rage.

“I thought you said you were having a good time,” you say.

“No. It was a terrible time.”

“Why did you lie to me.”

“I wasn’t lying.”

And down the rabbit hole you fall.

Believe it or not, this is not an issue of translation or misunderstanding. Both of you know what the words mean, and you are both using them correctly. This is a clear clash of cultures and you’ve got to step back and examine it from that perspective.

When she said she was having a good time, or even wanted to go to a dump like the Frog and Shamrock anyway, she was trying to avoid conflict. She knew that you love the place, and she knew your friends were there, and she wanted to be a good sport about things. She also knew that the Frog and Shamrock’s special spicy chicken wings were made low grade Bangkok street pigeons.

But she wanted to avoid conflict, so she went along, hoping that plans would change or you’d go somewhere else, or you’d realize through her body language and her lack of social engagement that she wasn’t having a great time, without having to come right out and tell you so. Her having to be so blunt with you has caused both parties to lose face; you because you are ignorant to the point of being impolite, her because she had to eventually cause a conflict.

Your new Thai girlfriend is more than likely not being dishonest because she’s a liar at heart, it is because she wants both of you to maintain a healthy social status and a sense of respect. Avoiding conflict is essential in that, avoiding it as long as she can possibly take it, anyway.

How do you prevent such cross-cultural miscommunications from happening?

First, a little graciousness goes a long way. Put some thought into your evenings out and other social activities, and talk over your plans with her well in advance, so she can plan properly. If she doesn’t want to go somewhere or do something, give her many opportunities to get out of it, and offer multiple times to go somewhere else or do something different. It is important for her to feel as though she has options and choices.

Keep in mind that even more than western woman, Thai women like to be treated like princesses. This can feel a little “old fashioned” to many men (and a fair number of western women, too) but remember those expectations are ingrained into her from her culture, and you are going to have the patience to work issues like this out together, if your new love is going to last. Take her out somewhere fancy and a little bit “girlish” or “ladylike” and you’ll see the lies drop away right quick, believe me.

Compromise, and remind each other when you are compromising. Having a sense that you are doing things for one another and the favors are being repaid in kind both helps avoid conflict and build trust.

Don’t fall into the rabbit hole of mistrust. Don’t let one “little white lie” build on another, leading to a cycle of dishonesty and disappointment. Remember that her little white lies come from trying to avoid conflict, not to mislead you or deceive you. Now, this is not telling you to ignore serious lies or fundamental trust problems, the likes of which can come up in any relationship, no matter what cultures are involved. But keep in mind you come from wildly different places with wildly different expectations of what is valuable in society.

Give her a hug and a kiss and be patient. Explain in gentle terms and non-aggressive body language why you are upset or disappointed. Ask about ways you can avoid conflict in the future without having to resort to telling white lies.

Smile. It is Thailand, after all!

2 thoughts on “The importance of saving face in Thai society”

  1. Well-written and a good explanation. However, if you ask someone a direct question like “are you having a good time?” and they say yes when they are not, in most cultures that is accepted as a lie. And that would probably be the first lie of thousands. I wonder if he asked her if she wanted to go and eat dog turds with him and his friends would she still have said yes to be a “good sport”? Face saving is essentially lying and a culture which doesn’t help the Thai people at all. Being direct and honest would make life so much easier for everyone.

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