Losing Face (Social Situation)
Losing face is an Asia-wide phenomenon that can cause great misunderstanding, disbelief and even anger amongst Westerners who misread the signs. Ironically, displaying any of these emotions simply exacerbates the problem. Thais are well aware of the rules, so it is almost always farangs who are the cause of lost face. However, it is inevitably the Thais who suffer in silence for our ignorance of Thai etiquette.
Losing face is similar to being embarrassed but intensified infinitely until it assumes monumental proportions. As a result, Thais will go to great lengths to save face, and this is greatly at odds with most Western cultures, leading to a number of potentially awkward situations. In social circles, these cultural clashes are inevitable and often result in uncomfortable although manageable moments. However in business situations, a lot more is at stake. Refer to the Business Culture section for more on this.
Firstly, we need to understand what causes the dreaded loss of face. Here are the most common causes:
• displaying anger in public
• displaying annoyance in public
• appearing not to know something
• appearing not to understand something
• appearing to have failed at something
• appearing to have made a mistake
NB. Paradoxically, being 2 hours late for an important appointment does not constitute loss of face.
We can minimize the potential for lost face by regulating our own behaviour, in particular the display of public emotions. This contradicts the culture of many farangs, but hey, nobody said that this was going to be easy. It’s time to take a chill pill, people.
The notable exception to this rule can be found in the constant stream of dross that is served up masquerading as entertainment under the banner of lakorn (Thai soap operas). In these melodramatic parodies of high society, the women scream, shout or sob in petulant tantrums that serve as the antithesis of accepted decorum. When I first saw a Thai soap opera, I was extremely confused. I wasn’t sure whether I had been misinformed about public displays of emotion, or whether the soap operas were just flouting the rules. As with most things in Thailand, it was the latter. Considering how popular these soaps are, we should be thankful the “stars” don’t serve as role models.
On a personal note, I know that I also fall foul of this rule on occasion by showing anger or annoyance in public. My wife becomes highly embarrassed if I raise my voice with, for example, a taxi driver who refuses to use his metre. The Thai way dictates that you should just accept this and move on because showing such negative emotions is considered childish behaviour.
It is something that I really struggle to come to terms with. If somebody has caused me a problem through their incompetence, lack of respect or cheating, I feel compelled, as a farang, to let them know that I find that unacceptable. If someone cuts in front of me in a queue, I will give them a mouthful. I don’t want to meekly accept being mistreated in any way, but this is what is expected in Thai culture and this is where I struggle to adapt or embrace this cultural nuance. I, therefore, neither practice nor preach, but I do proffer some advice.
If you are in an official situation such as applying for a visa, displaying anger, annoyance or frustration can be particularly counter-productive, no matter how warranted you feel these emotional outbursts are. I have learnt the importance of playing the game in these situations. Let’s face it. You are not going to make an immigration official change his mind because you swore at him, regardless of whether his cultural conditioning dictates that such a tirade causes him lost face or not. In such a situation, it’s a good time to bite your tongue and meditate on the balancing of your chi.
You should also be aware that Thais will not admit they don’t know or understand something as this would also lead to lost face. For this reason, you should always double check or clarify with open (wh) questions when asking for information or advice. Never use closed (yes/no) questions when asking for directions.
Finally, if you think that you have caused a Thai to lose face or if you feel that they are in a face-losing situation, leave them a way out. For example, if they have made a mistake, don’t draw attention to it. If you feel they haven’t understood something, never ask, “Do you understand?” It’s better to choose less direct words and say something like, “I’m not sure I explained that very well. What I’m trying to say is…”
No matter how delicately you tread the cultural tightrope, you will have certainly caused someone to lose face without even realising it, although they would never admit it because that would cause more lost face and wouldn’t be greng jai. Now there’s another cultural landmine to watch out for.