The Concept of FACE in Thailand
Even in the West we don’t like to lose Face. Our egos can be challenged. When someone tells us something that we dislike and disagree with, it is human nature to react in what is perhaps a rather negative way. We don’t like criticism; we prefer praise. We may argue, shout, and get abusive. We might start making badly-thought out comments. Rarely, would we remain calm or turn the other cheek.
In countries of the Far East, and particularly Thailand, you can get into big trouble if you, even unintentionally, make someone lose Face. It’s not unknown for violence to occur.
Just raising your voice can be enough of a trigger for a Thai to believe that you are making him lose Face. He (or she, of course) will feel a loss of self-esteem. It is seen by Far-Eastern people almost as if you are attacking them. Westerners don’t see it that way. Raising their voices are a perfectly natural way to make their point or perhaps develop their reasoned argument.
Here are some common examples.
1. Sounding your horn when a car or bike pulls out in front of you will result, in his mind, that you are making him lose Face. He won’t accept that.
I had to break violently when a car pulled out dangerously from a side road (called a soi in Thailand). I avoided hitting him by about 2 centimetres. I sounded my horn for a good few seconds. It was so close that I knew I would have to change my underpants when I got home!
He was still driving slowly, no doubt putting on his seat belt or checking his phone, so I was able to safely overtake. He then started tail-gating me for about half a kilometre. I drove into the forecourt of the police station in Sarapi and he followed me. I got out of my car and started to walk towards him. He hurriedly reversed and drove off. He had lost Face but made the right decision not to pursue it. (Thai guys will only fight when there are several of them and the odds are in their favour. I’ve never known a Thai fight in a 1 to 1 situation). Not that I intended to fight him.
2. When a Thai does bad work on your car or house, he will often just walk away, provided that you have paid him of course. He may come back if you haven’t paid and make a temporary repair. But then he’ll disappear and he won’t ever come back. He has lost Face. He will still wai you and smile when he sees you.
3. Never confuse the Thai Smile with Face. A Thai may smile and wai you but that does not mean they are content. They may be seething with anger inside. Particularly if the situation has resulted in their losing Face.
I had a problem with my car being fraudulently registered in a Thai’s name. The court ordered that the car be re-registered in my name. I went to the Chiangmai Provincial Driving Centre and presented all the necessary documents to the senior manager. She actually lives a few doors down from me and I have helped her children with their English. Ning is very competent in her job, she knows the rules, and strives to carry them out fairly. (Not all government officers in Thailand are so dedicated).
We went together to see the big boss to get the paperwork signed off. He refused. Mai dai, we can not do. Ning persisted. I had been given a coffee and was just sitting down observing the unfolding discussion between big boss and his subordinate. Very unlike how the issue would have been handled in the West. She was calm, not being argumentative, and not raising her voice. For a full five minutes she explained the procedure tactfully and with all respect. She ended by saying, “we have to follow the judge’s ruling and I’ve prepared the necessary documents according to the Court’s instructions and rules.
Without looking up or acknowledging Ning, big boss signed, said nothing, and waved her away. Ning waied.
Ten minutes later, the car was in my name. Big boss had lost Face but could not apologise to Ning. He took the cheap way out of just waving her out of the office. (I heard today that Ning is now the “big boss” in another province).
4. Sometimes FACE forbids them from answering a question truthfully. If they don’t know they may walk away without a response or give you a false answer. I’ve asked for directions many times if I lose my way in the car. 90% of the time Thais are helpful. But around 10% will tell you what first comes into their heads. One never knows if directions are accurate. I always drive a little way and ask again to double check.
5. Being awkward. Slightly related to not wanting to lose Face. I do most of the day-to-day cleaning as my wife works as a government officer. I needed help moving the large screen TV which sits on a heavy cupboard. I asked her three times in the last week to hold the TV so that we could edge it forward to clean the floor beneath. No response until today when she reluctantly agreed to help. It took just four minutes.
She was being awkward because she was losing Face. She had realised that it was really her job to keep the house clean.
6. Most Thais will lose Face if you show them a better or more correct way of doing something. Particularly if you are a foreigner (farang) in Thailand). They will either walk away without saying a word or just ignore you. They may come back later and carry out the work as you suggested but they won’t admit to accepting what you had originally said.
7. Pern did a good job cleaning our living room. But she did not want to clean the kitchen area which was not very tidy or clean. She promised my wife several times that she would come to clean. But there were always excuses. She was tired, she was busy on other jobs, she was working in her new vegetable garden. We went to Pern’s home several times, bought vegetables from her, and went home expecting her to keep her promise. Because she had never turned up, my wife realised that she had never had any intention of cleaning our house again. My wife lost Face for trusting her and we no longer visit Pern’s home. We still smile and wai when we see her.
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