Losing Face

I think a serious basic flaw of Thailand is the “losing face” obsession, which is weaved into the very fabric of Thai life and culture….from birth to death… top to bottom. Nobody talks about it. I am aware that I actually know very little about it. So I will appreciate your comments/experiences on this subject.

Near as I can tell, it works like this. If something goes wrong or something isn’t right….anyone who is held as responsible…guilty or not… loses face. Anyone who is embarrassed or shown up loses which is evidently a pretty serious business to khun Thai. Another unfortunate feature of losing face is that it also appears to be permanent and irredeemable

For example, if you make an issue of there being no fire exits and safety features in a bar ..to the person responsible… they lose face and will hate you, maybe even seriously enough to want to hurt you if you persist in your criticisms. If you tell a staff underling (who is not responsible) they will never… ever!… even dream of telling their superior…because he will lose face and there will be hell to pay…. If the food sucks in restaurant don’t bother to complain to the waitperson (who will never ask you how you like your meal) …they’ll never tell anyone because the cook/owner can’t lose face. Check bin and don’t go back. Thai people don’t beep their horns (thank heavens!) because the driver being beeped at loses face…and it may provoke confrontation and/or violence. It’s likely a good idea if you don’t beep as well.
Unwalkable sidewalks? The head of sidewalk maintenance will lose face. Tiptoe thru the tulips. The blockade at the airport?…Nobody held to account because they’d lose face.

Most farang are aware (if somewhat bemused) that even a Thai prostitute the lowest of the lo-so from the Thai perspective will abandon a promising farang forever perhaps even do him violence.. if he makes her lose face. And the losing face thing.. is waaay ingrained into the class/caste system….probably more than we farang can imagine.

When it comes to serious government/bureaucratic decisions…spending billions on a highway to nowhere for example….a poorly built airport they don’t need…or tourist-hostile immigration laws… its very difficult to reverse, correct and remedy these costly bad decisions because the guys at the top…who made them.. can’t lose face. So the highway to nowhere…which everybody knows was a bad idea.. gets half-built…until it runs out of money…and another crumbling, useless half-assed project blights the landscape….and nobody loses face.

Farang…or anybody?…are helpless to change this.

I love and live in Thailand. I wouldn’t trade it’s lax attitude and lack of common sense for even one of the zoning and police regulations I escaped from in the West… where some touch-hole with a tape measure or a badge.. and a rule-book… reads everybody the riot act.
I’ll take the flaws. But its healthy and wise to be aware of them….and act accordingly. You’ve got to be observant, self-reliant and mindful…I always look four ways (and up and down) before crossing a one-way street. In a place where nobody will take care of you… you must take care of yourself.

Hey maybe I’m full of shit but please be generous and gentle in what you say about this essay. I don’t want to lose face.

28 thoughts on “Losing Face

  • January 24, 2010 at 2:10 am
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    I always advise people in Thailand that when a decision gets made that is so laughable, an event unfolds that is not explainable (in a Western sense/logic), or nothing occurs to remedy a problem that “sticks out like a pink elephant in the room that no one is talking about”….. then FACE plays at least a small role.

    There… I just summarized your essay into one rambling sentence 🙂

  • January 24, 2010 at 3:31 am
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    I dont know, I havent found the face thing to be so big a deal while living in Thailand. Face exists in the West too, we just dont emphasize it as much as the Thais do. But we did, in the past, when men would duel to the death over the slightest hint of disrrespect. Why the difference?

    I believe face is a bigger deal in Thailand because Thailand is not a law and order society, but a connections-based society, where power and influence and count for more than talent or credentials. This means your reputation is all important, more important than anything else, and worth defending against anything.

    In such a social structure, face becomes supremely important. We modern Westerners have trouble grasping this, but Western men in the 18th century would have seen the Thai obsession with face as quite natural.

    And while repuation – face- matters less in the West, it still matters.

    If you want to change the Thai obsession with face, you would have to change the whole social structure and how power and infuence is amassed and passed on. At the moment, the obsession with face is merely a perfectly rational response to prevailing conditions.

  • January 24, 2010 at 4:24 am
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    Thanks for this thread, I am still trying to deal with this face issue in Thailand. I know the same issue exists in many countries especially in Asia in general, but it seems to be really deeply rooted here in thailand and some one can get hurt badly or worse for saying the wrong thing! While I think most who read this thread understand that one can not change nor should even try to change this face issue, it can be a very annoying thing to live with. I fell I have to “de-program” my thinking so the pot holes in the walkway do not drive me mad!

    I do believe however, it would do a lot of good for the Thai people if face saving is dealt with and may be reduced to improve the social and economical situation here.

  • January 24, 2010 at 8:58 am
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    “if you make an issue of there being no fire exits and safety features in a bar ..to the person responsible… they lose face and will hate you, maybe even seriously enough to want to hurt you if you persist in your criticisms.”
    Did you seriously do this? If so, what are you thinking?
    Face is an issue that is many societies. It is simply to adapt too. “Think about how you behave at your workplace”
    Now imagine an entire culture behaving like we do when we are at work. That is face.
    It works well for Thai’s. I personally think it is a good idea for people to edit themselves prior to speaking aloud, but that is an opinion, nothing more.
    I think that your using this blog to vent some frustrations, and that is fine. Many people do. I do as well.
    Perhaps now the weekend is wrapping up, things will begin to look better for you this week.
    Take care,and be safe when walking.

  • January 24, 2010 at 12:05 pm
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    I have to disagree with many of the commenters. If I’m in the US and I see someone doing a cranial operation via the nose and then touching stuff that either I or other people might have to handle I will speak up and say “Dude, get your f*cking fingers out of your nose!” In Thailand, no Thai would EVER say that. And if a farang said it to a Thai the loss of face could be severe enough to provoke a fight.

    I know there are a lot of things that are special about Thai culture but there are also a lot of things that are just plain retarded and the only reason those things persist is because nobody has the balls to call other people out on it. For instance, how many times a day do you see Thais putting their kids on the handle bars of their scooters and wheeling them through Bangkok traffic? Back home they would have their child taken away from them for reckless endangerment. But in Thailand you simply don’t point out the stupidity of it because, well, you know that person might lose face if you told him how dangerous it was to put an infant on the handle bars.

    I have a lot of Thai friends who have been educated or spent some considerable time in Farangland and they are just as appalled by the shit that gets swept under the rug in the name of saving face as most of us are.

  • January 24, 2010 at 1:58 pm
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    @Mort
    What’s wrong with putting your kids on a bicycle? Until the lawyer’s and the Mom’s took over, we rode all over America without car seats, bike helmet’s, and people threatening to take your kids away.
    It’s not reckless, it is their only option. They cannot afford to buy a car.
    In reference to confrontation. You think it OK to confront someone, and then be surprised by the reaction? Would you say the same thing in Rio or in Juarez? I doubt it.
    I am not saying that sometimes what happens here isn’t odd or even frustrating at times. It is for everyone.
    But to think their culture should change to suit my version of what is right is simply ridiculous.
    As far as your “Thai” friends. Their just doing the “Agree with whatever he is saying” face saving technique.
    Lighten up, blending with other cultures is like time travel, do not disturb the nature of things 🙂

  • January 24, 2010 at 5:01 pm
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    @Chuck: Putting kids on the handlebars of a motorcycle is dangerous, period! I’ve yet to meet an Issan Thai who doesn’t have at least one relative who wasn’t killed or seriously injured in a motorcycle accident so why compound the tragedy by putting a baby in the least safe position of the bike? Personally, I think it’s perfectly alright to risk your own life driving a bike without a helmet but the baby doesn’t have a choice.

    I can appreciate your, don’t try to change them attitude but your laissez faire attitude is one of the problems. It wasn’t too long ago that child prostitution went unchecked in Thailand. It was foreign governments who put pressure on Thailand to crack down on it. Even then, many lawmakers were righteously pissed off that foreigners would tell Thailand what to do. Is fucking 10 year olds cool with you as long as the Thais are cool with it?

    And no, I said, educated or spent time in the west so they’re not mindless agreers. They actually say worse shit about Thailand than you or I ever could because they actually understand how fucked up it is. I’m not talking about some Issan wife you take back home and she spends her days holed up in the house cooking and cleaning and only making friends with the employees at the local Thai restaurant. I’m talking about Thais who have spent 4 or more years in a western university, are employed in management jobs, and have integrated into the western lifestyle. Those are the people who are agreeing with me.

    Here’s a perfect example, a relatively mid-so girl I was dating and I were out to dinner one night at a restaurant that had two levels. We were on the first level and there was a family on the second level eating their meal. The woman (looked like the mom), had taken off her shoes and was dangling her feet over our table as she jabbered away on her mobile. My girl motions towards the woman’s feet with her eyes and says in a low voice “Low class people. That’s very rude.”

    Back home, I think I’m well within my right to say “Hey, would you please not dangle your feet over my meal? We’re trying to eat!” But in Thailand it’s completely fucking taboo to point out that someone is out of line. My goodness, she might lose face if I pointed out what a rude cunt she’s being. So you sit there and have her feet hovering about 3 feet over your head the entire meal because it’s even ruder to point out how rude she is.

    Just yesterday I saw some girl on the BTS doing a double. She had a finger up each nostril and was digging away like there was gold up there. She’s just standing there like it’s completely normal to be mining her face for boogers. When I see the PM do it or I see someone on Channel 3 go booger hunting I’ll believe it’s part of the culture. Until then, “Get your fingers out of your nose!”

    I really dislike your view on this because it’s why this kind of crap happens in the first place. Nobody wants to speak up. Nobody wants to risk embarrassing someone. Nobody wants to lose face.

    I agree that there are many, many, many things I hope never change about Thailand but there are other things that are simply wrong and unless the Thais learn how to deal with some constructive criticism the rest of the world is going to pass them by.

    Just because Thais are taught that there are 360 days in a year (they’re taught 12×30 = 1 year) doesn’t make it so. Calling it Thai culture doesn’t negate the fact that it’s wrong. And it doesn’t help when people like you say we should just accept that in Thailand there are only 360 days in a year because that’s what the Thais believe.

    Thailand should be renamed the land of excuses. They have an excuse for everything. Oh, it’s Thai culture. Oh, that would make someone lose face. Oh, Thailand is a poor country. Anything to save admitting that maybe, just maybe, the Thai way if fucked up and they should do things differently.

    You said girls who put their babies on motorcycles have no other option? Is that really true? It’s far more likely that it’s just so widely accepted that they don’t go looking very far for other options. There are no busses? I’m not talking about rural Isaan here, I’m talking downtown Bangkok so I’m not buying there isn’t a mode of public transport available.

    For instance, I know a lot of farang guys married to Thai girls either with kids or kids on the way. It’s almost funny to watch sometimes because the Thai women can be so completely oblivious to the consequences of their actions.

    One night my friend and I went back to his place and his pregnant wife was in the bedroom with the door closed painting. Hubby opens the door and is almost knocked over with the paint fumes and starts yelling at her “What the fuck are you doing? You can’t be breathing that shit in. You’re going to fucking kill the baby.” And she’s like “I wanted to make the room nice for the baby but I didn’t want the whole house to smell.” And he’s yelling back at her “Well then ask me to paint the room or open all the windows or fuck, I don’t know. Just don’t sit in a room full of paint fumes and turn my son into a retard.”

    Yeah, no other option, indeed.

    I’m not a Thai basher. I’m not the guy sitting at the end of the bar talking about how all Thais are lazy, dishonest, and stupid. That’s not me. But I refuse to be one of these people who just blindly accepts whatever some Thai tells me because they would rather hide behind an excuse than admit that their system is fucked up.

    You can’t fix a problem until you admit that there is one.

    Even the Thai kings and government have outlawed things that were standard parts of Thai culture like polygamy and muay thai matches to the death so even amongst the Thais they seem to recognize that times change or some things may not be good for the collective society . . . why can’t you admit the same thing?

  • January 24, 2010 at 5:21 pm
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    @Mort
    I agree with a lot of your perspectives. I just can’t feel the passion you have. I respect the drive, and determination you have, I really do.
    But in the end, nobody cares what a farang thinks.
    Why does a farang care if someone dies on a motorbike, as you said everyone has had someone die. It is just a fact here.
    Your right, tangling feet in your face is uncool, but what can you do?
    Nose picking. Suggestions? They just aren’t hung up about it. I laugh when I see it (daily)
    I’m sorry you don’t like my view. I just understand that NO ONE cares about my view.
    To think that any Thai values mine, or any other farangs opinion on matters such as, fire safety, motorbike safety, sidewalk maintenance, government infrastructure projects is crazy.
    Thais will never change for westerners.
    I’m not some fool who has drank the “kool-aid” and thinks Thailand is this paradise, and that Thai’s can do know wrong.
    But I cannot fathom getting myself upset over something I have “0” influence over.

  • January 24, 2010 at 7:10 pm
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    @Chuck: Well, I know that what I think isn’t going to change anything either. 🙂 On the other hand, I refuse to say it’s okay or that’s just the Thai way. It’s still wrong.

  • January 25, 2010 at 12:38 am
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    Lose of face i was told is a fate worse then death to a thai. And doing so in this culture could get you hurt or worse.

  • January 25, 2010 at 2:38 pm
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    @ chuck and mort…….you both just lost face! now fight to the death.

  • January 26, 2010 at 9:08 am
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    I’m a Thai person but have been living in the U.S for a while. There are many great things about Thai culture that I like but then there are some certain things that I really can’t stand. I know they are not going to change.

    You’re probably familiar with the words “Mai Pen Rai”. Thai people love saying “Never mind”= “Mai Pen Rai”, “It’s okay”. Thais could careless when it comes to safety. “Mai Pen Rai” is almost like a face saving device for Thais when you don’t want to take responsibility about something or when you don’t want to hurt his/her feelings.

    Thais are not very careful when it comes to food and meats. Always, food poisoning in Thailand?.

    To be successful at work, Thais have to kiss a** a lot and they take the word “seniority” seriously. Thais are not very direct to the points b/c they don’t want to hurt your feelings or they just don’t want you to lose face.

  • January 26, 2010 at 11:39 am
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    @Venita
    Thanks for sharing your views with us. You certainly reinforce Mort’s argument. What aspects of Thai culture do you miss. Do you still worry about a “loss of face” in America?

  • January 26, 2010 at 12:38 pm
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    When I first came to Thailand I was involved in training the office staff in the use of a new system. I explained everything as slowly and as clearly as I could. When I had finished the first session I asked if there were any questions. There weren’t. I asked if everyone understood. They all nodded but they hadn’t understood a thing. Later, I learned that it was not possible for them to ask me questions about that which they didn’t understand because that would have inferred that I was a bad teacher thereby causing me to lose face.

  • January 26, 2010 at 1:03 pm
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    @Chuck

    After 10 yrs in the U.S, I don’t worry about a “loss of face” that much anymore. I said what I want to say and I don’t care much about what others would think about me. I became more direct to the point which is quite a big transformation for a Thai person like me. In the U.S, I have to stand up for myself or I wouldn’t get what I want. Thais are not very direct when they communicate. Kids don’t even look at you when they talk to you.

    I do miss the simple life in Thailand and Thai people(the good ones).
    Thanks for sharing!

  • February 8, 2010 at 9:43 am
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    @ chuck wow……..your name really cracks me up

  • February 24, 2010 at 9:58 am
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    Lots of farang should be happy for the ‘face’ thing. Can you imagine what comments many would get if people actually were to speak their mind instead of being polite? Some farangs like to live the illusion in Thailand. Let them, but it’s not for me.

    That being said, the face thing is an Asian thing, not just Thai and it’s the one thing I have the biggest gripe with in dealing with Asian culture in general. I really feel for the many Thai people in this country stuck in bad situations because they can’t, or won’t, speak up against injustice.

  • February 25, 2010 at 2:15 am
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    @Chuck Wow
    You telling me that people in Thailand are acting(being)extremly stupid(the nose thing and taking theyr shoe off in a restaurant,ridding bikes with infants on handbar) and they wouldnt accept a critic about that cause they will lose face?
    Man f… face,f… the culture the king and everything,if im being and acting stupid i will like people to let me know so i could grow up to be a better person.
    What you mean they dont have any option?They are handicaps persons?They cant walk to places?
    You guys are telling me that people over there they dont have that “common sence” that we use in the west?

  • March 14, 2010 at 3:23 pm
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    I started this thread.
    For some reason I never knew there were any comments.
    Thanks!

    As one writer said…the Westerner centuries past would have understood the “losing face” phenomenon….but I guess that’s saying Thai are still living in the Victorian Age….which while I think it is a good thing in a lot of ways… by appearances its not such a great thing for Thailand in a lot of ways.
    Another writer said; in the Western world you can still get your block knocked off for insulting someone. Well that’s true.
    But if, for example, you reported a deficiency/ problem in the workplace…or accused a politician of being corrupt…you’d probably get positive results in the West. Here you’d have to be of a higher caste/position than he to criticize, and even then you could get into serious trouble.
    Its called: not having freedom of speech.

    Seems also the Thai can lose face over such trivial things as some of the exchanges that took place between people who commented on this thread.

    And there’s the permanence feature. They don’t forgive and forget readily.

    The problem for us farang (which indeed we can do nothing about) is that things that are wrong don’t get corrected…things that are broken don’t get fixed…people responsible don’t receive justice… and that hurts everybody including us.

    I started the thread simply to point out that one should always be mindful of this strange quirk, which we don’t really understand, where the most trivial behavior may cause serious upset, even among people you care about.

    One fellow said “I don’t worry about things I cannot change.”
    Well neither do I…not much anyway…but in my relationships with Thai I always try to downplay the losing face thing… This works particularly well when she has committed an offense against me…sometimes even unnoticed by me…for which she offers a fearful apology. I always say: don’t take it so hard. I’m not Thai. I have no face to lose.

    Children on motorbikes…while it is necessary for most… I would like to see them drive slower and put helmets on their babies. Its another peculiarity of Thai culture that they don’t seem to grasp the cause-and-consequences equation very well. Strange though, I don’t see in the news that they are the victims of accidents all that often.

    I was amused by the comments about nose-picking. My first day in Thailand I boarded a taxi and there sat a stunning Thai woman. She smiled and said hello. I return the greeting…and moments later, without so much as turning her head, the breath-taking beauty had her index finger buried right up her nose.
    I recognized at that moment what a contrast of beautiful and unsightly Thailand can be.

  • March 22, 2010 at 1:15 am
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    Life prediction:

    You need to sort out your English mate, I tried reading some of that stuff of yours and all I got was a headache trying to understand what the heck your are on about.

  • May 9, 2010 at 6:08 am
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    “Face” manifests itself elsewhere. I work for a large public sector organisation in London. One cannot openly criticise colleagues. It is unacceptable. One must draw attention to better alternatives and suggest those. The Thai psychology of face is quite familiar; the trick is how to address in a culture which is very different.

  • July 13, 2010 at 9:49 am
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    The article was good then some of the comments turned into an article in their own right. Oh by the way, I keep seeing many people correcting others on their English and their use. It is either because they are American (I am American and I know my English is horrible, people often tell me so ) or they been in Thailand so long they are starting to lose the correct form. This has happened me a couple times when I have lived over seas for long periods of time.

  • July 21, 2012 at 8:00 am
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    How do you drive performance in a culture where confrontation and accountability are not effective?

    If my sales team are not performing and I can not call them out on it for fear of losing their commitment, how can I make a difference?

    One on one discussions? Do they help reduce the embarrassment and loss of face?

    Publice positive reinforcement to give face, does that help?

    I’m bewildered by the concept. I’m a Brit and have been raised to believe that everyone needs and bollocking some times, me included.

    When the carrot is dangled but no-one cares, how do you make the donkey run without kicking it?

  • September 30, 2012 at 12:05 am
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    wowwwww I have read the article about thai loose face and I find it great….
    I was always tryng to understand why everytime I had a very right complain about something evidently wrong and i complained about it, the person I complained to, was hating me. This also happened from thai friends or work fellows….now thank this article, I know.
    I played tennis with a thai doctor collegue and he asked me how is his tennis raket (spell I it right) and accoeding to me, it was a cheap imitation of wilson raket and I told him….well since then, he stopped speak to me, the only words he told me that my answer to his question is a demostration of my very low culture grade….would you believe it…..crazy!!!!!!
    Now thanks to this article “LOSING FACE” I understand much more….thanks again

  • October 20, 2013 at 6:24 pm
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    Been living in Asia for 8 months. “The Face” issue finally reared its ugly head for me last week.

    I’m staying in a Thai hotel. The staff decided to light a fire in the ground floor car park under my room. So my room fills with noxious fumes (they’re burning plastics) and I am having difficulty breathing.

    So I go down and tell them to put the fire out. And nothing happens. To put the fire out would require serious loss of face. So cue for me to go crazy and cause an even greater loss of face all round.

    The result?

    The staff involved now hate me and it looks like they’ll hold a grudge forever. The hotel didn’t burn down but I got no thanks for that. As for me, well I can’t complain to anybody because there is no government department to regulate hotels. Astonishing.

    Funny thing is, the other farangs in the hotel lobby just shrugged it off. Maybe they’re the farangs who come here and stay in unsafe hotels, go on deathtrap buses, visit nightclubs that burn down or fall off motorcycles or go and drown in Phuket.

    Welcome to Thailand. Please leave your common sense in the arrivals hall.
    Xiongmao recently posted..Sightseeing in China

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