The Mysteries of Face
Western visitors to Thailand often find themselves struggling for an explanation to the mysteries of Thai behaviour. Why do they sometimes behave in ways that seem so strange to us? One common explanation often put forward is the Thai concept of 'face'.
Why won't they admit they are wrong? They would lose face. Why won't they admit they don't know? They would lose face. Why did I get bad service? Because you lost your temper and lost face. Again and again, when newcomers ask for an explanation to some strange facet of Thai behaviour, the old timers give this simple explanation.
I often wonder if the influence of face is not overstated. Are the concepts of face really so different from our own?
What is Face?
Face is a concept that is widespread across most of southern and eastern Asia. It is the idea that it is important to maintain your own reputation and not look bad in front of others. It is good to have high social status. It is good to have a good job, a position of responsibility or influence. It is bad to be seen to fail or do something stupid.
It is also bad to cause other people to lose face. So while maintaining your own reputation you should try not to demean others.
When you look at these ideas, there is nothing unusual about them. Doesn't everybody want to have a good reputation? Shouldn't everybody respect others? They seem like universal concepts. However, the belief is that these are far stronger driving forces in Asia than elsewhere.
How Does Face Work in Thailand?
How face affects Thai behaviour is a big subject. If you really analysed it you could write a book on the subject. We will only attempt to scratch the surface. The first thing to say is that the following are generalisations. Many Thais are not that strongly influenced by face. Still, there are a few ways in which face consistently affects Thai life.
Personal appearance is important. It is the first impression you make on people. Thais are generally well turned out, especially when working, going out or dealing with officials.
Many westerners in Thailand enjoy the laid-back atmosphere and like to dress casual in dirty old shirts, shorts and flip-flops. This is fine in casual situations but it can make a bad impression in more formal situations such as dealing with officials. Government officials and offices are positions of respect and if you turn up scruffy, they may see it as a disrespectful start.
You will make this bad opening impression worse if you have tattoos, body piercings or an unusual haircut. These are all things that in Thailand are associated with lower class people. Thailand is a hierarchal society and the impression you make does affect the response you will get from officials. Looking smart is not everything but it is a factor in getting good service.
It is important to act with a degree of dignity. Thais are not serious people but they still like to carry themselves with a little decorum. Joking and fooling around is fine within limits but you should not be too loud or make a spectacle of yourself.
It is bad to lose your temper or argue in public. That is not to say it doesn't happen. Thais are human and prone to the odd outburst like most people. However, generally they try to control their anger and keep their composure. If they find themselves in a dispute then they believe a strong word and a cold smile are better ways to get their point across while maintaining their face.
It is important to help other people maintain their face. Causing someone else to lose face can actually also cause a loss of face for yourself. The strange thing here is that it is very much to people's faces that you must respect them. Gossiping behind peoples backs is as common here as it is in the west.
Over-reaction to Losing Face
One strange thing about face is that Thais can overreact if they feel they have lost face. While we have already stated that losing your temper is a loss of face, when Thais do lose their temper they can lose it in a big way. They know they are looking bad and losing face and this can actually magnify their anger. The result can be extreme over-reactions and sometimes acts of violence.
The above are just a selection of the ways in which face influences Thai behaviour. However, when you look at them, none of them are that alien to western values. We like to look good, make a good impression, we want people to like and respect us. We do tend to believe it is good to control our tempers and respect others.
There is no doubt that face is a factor in understanding Thai behaviour. It does affect the Thai mentality in subtle and deep-reaching ways. However, I do believe it is a mistake to over-state its importance. The explanations of Thai behaviour are often much simpler. Human nature is still the greatest driving force. The things that influence our behaviour such as love, greed and ego are also the forces that influence Thais.
Thais really are not so different from us. The reason we often don't understand Thai behaviour is simple - people are complicated.