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Losing Face in Business

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 (refer to the Social Culture section for more on this). However in business situations, a lot more is at stake.

Firstly, we need to understand what causes the dreaded loss of face. Here are the most common causes:

• displaying anger in public
• displaying annoyance or frustration 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.

In business situations, we can minimize the potential for lost face firstly by regulating our own behaviour, in particular the display of public emotions. This contradicts the culture of many farangs, especially that of the Latin countries of southern Europe, but to display such emotions is considered immature in conservative Thai business culture and is highly counter-productive.

We may feel that occasional outbursts are warranted from time to time. Indeed, good man-management skills in the West balance the arm-around-the-shoulder approach with the kick-up-the-backside technique, but there is no stick in the Thai business culture manual – only carrots. This is not to say that Thai managers never show frustration or anger with their subordinates, but such tirades are rare and controlled.

However, if we do find that our emotions get the better of us, there is hope for salvation. With Thai staff under my supervision, I try to play the game, but I have let my feelings get the better of me and shown anger yet still made good of the situation on more than one occasion. After the first time I lost my temper and shouted at a Thai colleague, I noticed in the aftermath that there was a newly-formed gulf dividing us as her lost face made our working relationship untenable.

When I had calmed down, I knew that something had to give if the situation wasn’t to deteriorate beyond repair. I asked to speak to her and then apologised for shouting at her. I went on to explain that I knew this was wrong in Thai culture, but that I was still learning. Finally, I explained the specific details of why I had shouted (in a non-confrontational way) and asked how we could remedy the situation together. In doing so, I had given her the chance to regain her lost face and our working relationship was not only repaired as a result, but it actually became much stronger than it had been before.

This situation has been relived on a few occasions during my time working with Thais. While I wouldn’t recommend it as a pre-conceived way of strengthening a working relationship, it does offer a way to save one that might otherwise be carelessly and irreparably damaged.

If you are in a subordinate position or dealing with officials, such as when applying for a visa, you will find that displaying anger, annoyance or frustration can be particularly counter-productive, no matter how warranted you feel these emotional outbursts are. I have learnt from experience 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 social 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.

Apart from when farangs shout at them, Thais can also be the cause of their own lost face if they appear incompetent in any way. They will make every effort to avoid placing themselves in such an embarrassing situation, but if they do find themselves in this position, they will pass the buck, evade the issue, hide, or just ignore it in the hope that everything works out without their intervention, or that at least no-one notices.

As a result, you should be aware that Thais will not admit they don’t know or understand something. For this reason, you should always double check or clarify with open (wh) questions when ascertaining if they understood your request or training. Never use closed (yes/no) questions, such as, “Do you understand?” because they will always answer “yes” regardless of whether they actually did understand.

“If you have any questions, let me know. Come and see me if you need any help.” These are the kind of statements we would use in the West, but if you use them with a Thai, you might as well tell them, “If you want to show me that you are incompetent and stupid for not understanding this, please come and see me so that I can humiliate you.” The only way to guarantee that a new directive or procedure has been assimilated is to have it explained or demonstrated back to you.

During my early days in Thailand, I became frustrated more than once when something wasn’t done after I had requested it and checked that my request had been understood. The Thai member of staff on each occasion was saving their own face by not admitting they didn’t understand when I asked. In doing so, they had passed the onus back to me and my resulting frustration and anger meant that it was me and not them who lost face. Of course, when I realised that, it merely served to exacerbate my feelings, sending me into a tailspin of self-propelled facial destruction. All of this could have been avoided if I had just moderated the method I used to check assimilation. “Can you explain that back to me?” or “How would you do that?” would have been far more effective questions in the circumstances.

In addition, Thais will lose face if they are perceived to have made a mistake. There is no easy solution here because there is no way of preventing humans from erring. Equally, it’s extremely difficult to expect to change someone’s ingrained cultural programming just because you tell them how things work in the West. I and countless other farangs have told our Thai staff not to worry if they make a mistake and that it can be an opportunity to learn. The Thai employee will no doubt nod politely as this is explained to them but either they will be humouring you while being totally stumped by such an alien concept and secretly wondering how you ever became a manager when you are obviously suffering from some delusional mental condition, or they won’t have understood you.

Highlighting a Thai’s shortcomings in front of their peers will guarantee that they will be purchasing voodoo dolls in your image. It doesn’t matter that you then go on to offer your help because this just further reinforces that you feel they are incompetent.

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 directly blame an individual but instead ask a question such as, “How can we fix this?” or “How can we improve this system to make it more effective in the future?”

Thai culture is intricately interwoven and other factors such as being greng jai and the collectivism of Thais are factors that influence the loss of face further.

Back to Working and Doing Business in Thailand


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