Episode 2 : Saving Face in Thai culture

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Explore the different ways to ask questions in Thai with Mia and Lani, such as ไหม măi and ใช่ไหม châi măi, and understand why Thais might say, “Yes” when they mean,“No”. This is a very important concept in Thai culture, a nation that values “saving face”.

 

 

 Download MP3 and listen to it offline here

 

You probably are already familiar with the term “losing face” or “saving face” when talking about Thai culture. It’s a pretty big deal. Although to most Westerners the concept is strange and maybe even ridiculous.

But take it from me, it’s important.

Saving face in Thai culture is probably the same as a Westerner or foreigner’s reputation. The idea or value behind saving face is nobody wants to lose face. For instance, most folks don’t want to be embarrassed or look like a fool. In Thailand, they just take it a little further – they will go so far as to tell you “yes” when they mean “no” or “don’t know.”

You might think, “Oh, well, I value honesty.” Yeah, but do you really? There are some instances where you want to be lied to, like when you are tired, or didn’t give the best presentation, or any situation where you didn’t look or feel your best. We all do this, fibbing, or glossing over the truth and really, no harm is done.

Now, you might think this is life and death when Thais don’t tell you the truth, in order for them to “look good” or save face, but they don’t know what is important to you or not. It’s all relative.

Western culture finds “keeping up with the Joneses” or trying to make sure they have the latest and greatest technology and stuff, perfectly acceptable. Eastern culture loves that too, especially in Thailand where the middle class is growing. But! Don’t be bringing shame on the family while you are doing it.

Look at the language here. Losing face in paa-săa Thai is เสียหน้า sĭa nâa, or broken face, sĭa meaning something not working, and nâa meaning face. That’s fairly powerful language.

Think of saving face as Thai currency. It can help you get farther and soothe any problems perceived in the present. Because it’s also important for you to understand that Thai culture is a current culture, thinking of today because tomorrow is not here yet. If you lose face, if you lose your temper, your currency has lost its value. This idea reminds me of a popular 80s ad that ran in the US, by Dry Idea antiperspirant,

“Never let them see you sweat.”

- Blog post written by Lani. For more on her life in Thailand visit Life, the Universe and Lani (formally Tell-Thai Heart.com). 

38 thoughts on “Episode 2 : Saving Face in Thai culture

    • Very much a Thai explanation ie” mai pen rai.”…The fact is it is a very regressive and backward response to social life…the idea that you can save face is rooted in looking good or bigging yourself,your family or your nation…and in order to do so all sorts of lying and bare faced deceits are used to accomplish this.This is in direct conflict with buddhism, which teaches tell no untruths.Hence you have a society where you cannot criticise nor be self critical ,be challenged and challenge[ particularly authority] and where basic honesty and trustworthiness is absent.In this environment Thai people are taught that they are exceptional [bigging up] ,when in fact/truth they are not. Much of this stems from the post feudal era that Thailand is currently evolving from. However to suggest that ‘saving face ‘ is an endearing Thai custom which “we westerners never understand as we can never know Thainess[bigging up] ” is complete rubbish.. we all know what “Thainess” is about and saving face is one unpleasant manifestation of it.

      • Ralph Graham says:

        Interesting post! I think you are saying hold the Thais to the core of their culture and don’t go along with saving face which is actually counter to their professed but not practiced philosophy. I think your post shows a lot of insight. Good luck with that, but change has to start somewhere. :)

        • No Toni lived here for 15 years ,work here, have thai wife and two children and i am educated .I have never been to Pattaya perhaps you can tell me about it?

  1. Thanks Lani. It’s nice to see a culture who places such significant weight on integrity of character. I think it’s something that needs to have greater emphasis in US politics. Imagine a country where your honor represents your value. Not a bad way to live.

  2. Hi Jason,

    I think there are pros and cons to living in a culture that is all about appearances. But I think that is one of the BIG reasons why Thailand is such a popular tourist destination. Folks here want to put on their best ‘face’ and are friendly.

    When tourists go to other countries where they don’t care, it shows, and well, nobody wants to feel unwelcomed, so Thailand has a really lovely reputation. It’s interesting for sure!
    Lani recently posted.. What, pray tell, is rude health?My Profile

  3. Hi Lani,

    This topic is very interesting.

    I just don’t really understand this part of your article :
    “Now, you might think this is life and death when Thais don’t tell you the truth, in order for them to “look good” or save face, but they don’t know what is important to you or not. It’s all relative.”

    Do you mean that a Thai person would lie to me (farang) and be fake with me just to seem nice to other people around but deeply, this Thai person doesn’t like me ?

    I DO value honesty and I can feel when someone is fake.
    For example, last time I went for a massage in Chiang Mai, the woman told me “it’s 300 baht” I said ok. During the massage, I was learning some thai words and having a nice conversation with the woman.
    When she gave me the bill, she wrote down “350 baht”. I didn’t say anything, I paid, I kept my smile and I left but really, I was really upset to be taken as a fool just because I’m a farang …

    So, if “losing face” is so important for Thai people, why would they make other people feel this way ?

    I agree with you in your comment about the pros and cons because, for example, a smile from someone who is fake doesn’t have the same effect as a smile from someone being honest :-) !
    Cyn recently posted.. Les meilleurs cafés de Chiang MaiMy Profile

    • Cyn,

      Western people value honestly and Thais are the same. First, you must understand “white lies”.
      Thai people don’t like confrontation if they disagree with you about something and it’s not a big deal to them win over you, they will simple agreed or act like they agreed in order to avoid nonsense argument.
      If they meet you for the first time and they don’t like you, they will just avoid you. On the other hands, if they couldn’t avoid you they will try to go with the flow and try to be interested in you.

      Another example, if your Thai friend arrive at your party late. They will be more than likely to tell you that the traffic was bad not that they almost forgot about your party. They care to not let you know the truth, not to hurt your feeling.

      Thai “save face” in order to not “losing face” will only happen if Thais know you. For what happens to you at the massage place was simple that she took advantage of you, she doesn’t care enough what you think or feel. So, there is no reason for her to worry about “losing face”

      • No Lying is lying and you can make up any amount of excuses but Lying is in the Thai Dna..they do it to each other all the time and even more so with foreigners. The Buddha was clear on this lying is lying saving face is a thai concept to excuse the lie unfortunately it has been warped into this concept of Thainess [ yet another lie].

      • Talk to your grandma’s hand! Thai people are brainwashed since they were born. That why they are selfish, ego…..etc..never trust or talk to a Thai. Thai are liars…like to give excuses cuz of face facing..did Buddhism teaches u guys to tell white lies? Cuz thai are coward..whenever there is a problem, they will avoid & run away. Excuses….to avoid confrontation. Bullshit…you guys are coward! Waste of time cuz Thailand is a third world country..no need to explain further…

    • Ralph Graham says:

      Hi,
      I am from Australia and spent some time in Thailand many years ago. Cyn, if you said “the price is wrong” or worse, you leave no way out for them. If you said “Excuse me, but there might be a mistake, I thought the quote was 300 baht,” you allow them to save face by agreeing it was a mistake. Even if they were trying to take advantage of you they now have a way to change the price and save face. You chose to say nothing and the price we pay when we do that is to have resentment. If they made a mistake they will actually appreciate you bringing it up because then you will want to come back and to recommend them. Saying nothing means you won’t go back and you will tell people they do the wrong thing.
      Yim, dee gwah! :o )

    • To lose face you either need an audience (to judge you) or a relationship (to damage) with the other person. A masseuse doing her day job is hardly going to care what you think of her, if she thinks it’s unlikely you’ll ever meet again. It has nothing to do with you being a “farang”, other than the practicalities of it being easier to swindle you.

      If you don’t like it on principle, letting her get away with it is the worst possible thing to do. Mention it and let her save face by saying it was an accident.

  4. Dan Curtis says:

    Hello, I’m a volunteer English teacher in Maetang, Chiang Mai. I very passionate about teaching my Thai students as best as I can. One student in particular, in a very smart class sleeps, doesn’t participate when we are practicing English after understanding the translation. I tried everything and finally I had him come to front of class with me and be a teacher with me. He was very good and I complimented him and had him return to his seat. As I walked around the room I notice on my worksheet that he had drawn the international symbol, the finger for fuck you. Whether it be a public school or Christian school it shouldn’t make a difference that this is not acceptable. I happen to teach at a Christian school. We had a conference today with the school administrator. Earlier this, the finger, would have been the main point of the discussion and then his lack of participating. After giving it much thought, I realized he was very angry at me for having him teach with me in front of the class. And I accepted that as a normal reaction and that is how he vented his frustration. I just happened to see it on his worksheet. So, before the meeting I decided that I would not even bring that up about the finger (fuck you) and just talk about his lack of participating and how he could improve. He, himself, brought it up to my Thai translator stating that it was his drawing of the soccer/futbol “World Cup” trophy, not the finger. I showed it to the administrator and it was obviosly the “finger.” He then said he didn’t know the deeper meaning of the “finger.” He is a forteen year old Thai and the Thai translator and I had no doubt whatsoever that he knew full well the meaning. So he went from one lie to the next just to save face. If he could have been honest the fuck you finger issue would not have even come up as I was very willing to let that slide. I am not necessarily interested in being right, I just want to have a better understanding of my beautiful Thai students and how I can help them learn as much English as I can teach them. I am honored and priviledge to be in this wonderful country. Thanks for any tips or insights and I just happened to find you. Sincerely

    • Ralph Graham says:

      Dan Curtis, that was a good message. I love the Thai people too. One thing that bothers me and perhaps you first language is not English, but as you made simple mistakes in your post I am wondering how well you would be able to teach English??
      Ralph :)

  5. Rita Ractliffe says:

    Thank you for the transliterations! Am writing some novels right now, and like to sprinkle a few Thai sayings in… not overkill, just to b a little more authentic. Have tried some of the translate to English sites, but they just show the Thai alphabet, and my computer doesn’t do that. So a nice transliteration is great. I definitely want to subscribe!

    Khap khun krab (anywhere close to right?)
    Rita

  6. This is a great podcast! However, I highly disagree with your portrayal of siia naa as an integral part of Thai culture. Buddhism is an equally prominent culture in Thailand, for which there is a strict precept on lying–in this precept, lying to save face, or out of politeness is still called lying, and is dishonest. I believe that your describing small lies as okay is not a representation of Thai culture, but of your own western background.

    I count it as a blessing to know many many Thais who are less concerned with saving face and more concerned with being truthful. Please don’t present a blanket description of Thai “culture,” for Buddhism is, at least one major expression of Thai culture.

    • Man, you can’t have spent very long in Thailand. The every day Buddhism as understood and practiced by most people is far from pure Buddhism. The vast majority of Thai people know about as much Buddhist history and scripture as the average westerner knows about Christianity.

      If you made a golden Adolph Hitler statue and put it at the side of a busy street, it would be plastered in gold leaf and surrounded by candles and joss sticks within 30 minutes.

      • You have clearly not visited Thailand or you are trying to defend a narrative in saving face by lying..the average thai understanding of most things is limited due to the education system and to suggest that the thais are thinking about scriptures all the time is laughable ..they are generally trying to survive on 300 baht a day what an idiot!!

  7. As a Thailand holiday vetran of many years and a big monger on my day, it recently changed and heres my story

    I always come to Asia for 3 months a year and in 2014 was persuaded by a mate in england to bring him to thailand which i did in October for only 2 weeks as an extra holiday for me. Well, we did the girls and then I met my girl. she didnt speak much english, seemed pleasantly naive/demure but was good in bed with no tats. She had worked in the bar since March, was 28 years old but stunningly attractive and no doubt popular in the bar. I spent 4 days with her, returned to the UK and got back in touch with her to revisit her on my 3 month return on December 20th.

    She met me in BKK as i requested, we stayed 1 night then went to Pattaya where we checked in as a couple. I treated her well and fairly giving her good face in front of her bar friends which cost me some money but i was happy to big her up. In February/march I rented a nice house, bought her out the bar, told her to get her son to live with us and lets give it try. She her Issan village to see an ill grandmother, so I suspected a potential scam, but she died so it wasnt. Weeks later her mom is at deaths door (is this scam i think?) so i visited visited her Issan village with her. She was at deaths door in ICU and i feared it was my tab. It wasnt and she died so we returned some weeks later for funeral at no cost to me. We lived quite well thereafter, she didnt want money saying i was taking care and It went well until one morning in may said baby goes back to village; no discussion. We argued but I never learnt why, accepted it but became wary. Maybe i had always been wary?

    I applied for a visa to take her uk, failed and she moved out for 12 hours thinking I didnt love her enough to ensure visa sucess. I reapplied and we got it, went to UK business class, returned and went her old bar to big her up. She got drunk had a small confrontation with the Thai DJ that I resolved in a Neanderthal way. we left without any explanation of what it was about. A week later, i returned to the bar to make apologies and amends. Seems said DJ had paid my girl 20k to be her boyfriend but apparently had been dumped when i came along and he wanted it back. Livid? I was apoplectic and tried to kick her out to no avail. I relented knowing her past is HER past that she would never share it with me; however, her past had become current because she lied about the confrontation.

    We avoided the bar and my girl picked up an old school friend. Now, my GF has never been anywhere without me in our 8 months together, but new friend encourages her to spend afternoons with her playing cards and my GF subtly changes almost unnoticeably. I phone, she doesnt pick up, when she does theres no background noise and i let my wariness show. I text saying “I not belive” Minutes later she phoning saying shes on her way back. Angry, she is…I take that as guilt. She says I think she no good blah blah and after a night of her berating me (not me her!) she moves out in the morning saying “i not like pattaya so go stay with baby” Bye bye…I couldnt believe a girl would walk out of a middle class life of no money worries and a loving not straying partner who stupidly perhaps treats like a princess. Mates abound with scenarios… Thai boyfriend, back with husband, returning sponsor, high season approaching, etc.

    I want her and return her old bar to talk. everybody knows i love her, treat her well and i talk to married falang regular who says “we think to much” and i think I start to get the Thai ethos, not just hear it but understand it. GF texts saying she misses me, i say (drunkenly?) come back tommorow from Lampang and lets start again. Happy.

    In the morning my GF new friend posts a facebook picture showing her and my GF dressed to kill and out in Pattaya. I knew it to recent as GF has never been out at night without me. The new wwk old haircuts a further giveaway…. Gutted does not explain my feelings and I Post the picture and message asking for explanation. I phone with no answer, I text, I line message, line phone like a stalker. At some point we talk and i say ” I am flying to Lampang to get you, I love you.. so meet me at the airport at 4.00pm”. She cant meet me at that time she explains but will let me know what time later… My freind talks the options laughing hows she caught and cant get out of it. She texts back later saying she will meet me at 6.00pm at the airport. Surprised ( shes calling my bluff knowing i wont fly up there… how clever) I try phoning like a stalker again. I text saying “If your not in Lampang, lets talk” I then discover, the flight from BKK to lampang lands at 17.50 that night. Does she think I arrive at 16.00? allday I get no returned calls, texts, messages or anything.

    At 4.00 I phone to say Im not coming to Lampang but she cuts the ring off and turns the phone off. Absolute dis-resect…. its over and there is no return. At 5.30 in the pub my mate says stop the pretences and tell her to meet you tonight here in Pattaya. I think, she boarded the lampang flight hence the cut off and no signal? I post this request on her facebook page telling her world I want her back. She will see she has blown it…

    At 6.30pm she phones in tears and says she is in BKK airport and will return to the house for a talk it through at 8.30. What? She cant be but she posts photos..but strangely there are airside and why still at the airport if she went to see if I got on the flight? Non sensical until she arrives home for the reveal.

    She left me because new friend said I dont love her as I give no money but clearly have money. I am treating her as toy to be discarded in the future. She doesnt answer my calls at cards for fear of losing face in front of new friend and goes to a quiet area so she doesnt know. So she tests me by leaving to see i Chase her without getting a new girl from the millions on offer. Most falangs would have on my story Im sure. She didnt go Lampang as she hoped I would chase her and get her back so why bother? New friend post picture to scupper things at the 11th hour? When I say I am going to Lampang to get her, she books flight knowing its the only one I can get (I got my flight times wrong), checks in for a public romantic reunion, ignores my calls for fear of an argument spoiling things. She waits airside at the gate until the she is the last passenger. I dont turn up, I phone so she cuts me off distraught. Gets suitcases offloaded to return to friend as there can be no reconciliation now. Then she thinks.. freind not want me with boyfriend and i not like pattaya so she now books the next flight to Chaing Mai which is close to lampang. Then she get the message to meet me so gets her bags offloaded again and returns. She is back

    Bottom line, she has a jealous new friend trying to scupper things for a drinking buddy and as a falang we think the worst. A combination of Thai-face, lying to avoid confrontation and stupid insecure and childish behaviour created a big problem that escalated… She didnt tell me she was leaving to stay in pattaya as i would be scared so tried to give me peace of heart to find my love for her thinking shes with her son. Stupid. very very stupid but maybe she has learnt a little. For me, I flashed too much cash on frivolous things giving impression im still on holiday and will leave her when out of money, or, I have so much money I wont miss 1mTHB to rebuild her village house? Me also stupid. Especially when I was vague about village house but booked us a return business class flight to UK to watch a liverpool game in December!! 250kTHB is better spent on the house isnt it… I have been equally stupid trying to impress and ….well. I am equally stupid

    I have cancelled the december flights and will use this as a 1st instalment on the house, with increments thereafter based on her good behaviour and recripicated love/respect

    Dont think to much Falangs. Dont spend too much. Face is everything.

    Adrian

    • Exactly.

      I have a son with a Thai man.

      Same shit.

      AND I want to add: It really doesn´t have to do that she was a bar girl.
      It´s Thai society.
      It goes throughout all “classes”.

      Well I made my statement down below.

  8. You might be Thai, but I think you totally explain it wrong or it is only your point of view or you try to protect female Thais LOL

    Thais lie for advantages
    They want be “unknown” so that they can fit to anyone and any situation
    But they not lie meaningless, the do it for their own selfish reasons.

    I think what you wrote is just a soft version to make it look harmless.
    In fact, many Thai families have problems with these lies too. I mean inside the family.

    And women in agony raise their children with such thinking….
    Their brains are damaged and their mode is “not show my real me” and that´s just a clever tactic to live.
    In fact, it can leads to many problems.
    There are so many news throughout Thailand in which the Thai boyfriend OR Thai girlfriend in a THAI relationship KILLS his or her Thai lover.

    That´s why especially relationships between a Thai MAN and a foreigner WOMEN never work.

    Thais should follow their Buddhism religion – Don´t lie, actually, shut up if you don´t have to say something important -_-

    I hate this lying.

  9. If you want to learn first hand what “saving face”, or “losing face” means to Thailand people, (some, not all), drive a vehicle on Thailand highways and streets. The motorcycles will show you as well.

  10. The Thai obsession with saving face is the equivalent of murdering someone and not wanting to take responsibility for the crime. That’s it. Plain and simple. Thai culture my ass. They want it both ways.

    If Thais were so conscious about their “face”, they would act according to the perception they intend others to have of them. If you don’t want people to call you a liar, don’t lie. If you don’t want people to call you a whore, don’t be a whore. If you don’t want people to call you a scammer, don’t scam.

    By this comment, one would think this applies only to the shadier aspects of Thai society, but it does, in large part, apply to Thai society as a whole. A near total inability to be honest with oneself, which is why you will often hear Thais asking why do foreigners do this or that, but will despise the same question asked to them by a foreigner.

    Of course there are Thais who are very aware of this, usually at the upper scale of society. But then many of these Thais will happily break people’s faces for their own gain. This can be evidenced by the number of defamation suits filed from one wealthy magnate to another, and so on…

    Then you have the Thais criticizing every type of nationality they have come across…but when you criticize Thais, they can’t handle it. They may call an Indian “cheap” for tipping a small amount not even considering the Indian may not have the means to tip “large”. Perhaps one could argue that Indians are cheap…but how many Thais have you met who didn’t even offer to pay the bill, let alone offer a tip? How often do Thais tip? There is no self-reflection.

    They want to get away with murder and not be called out for it.

    Call me whatever you want. In my view, if you disrespect others, you deserve a face washing.

    The only person who can break your face is you – by your deeds.

  11. richard long VIII says:

    i can still hear them lazy pigs asking set ? set? set?

    i aint cum yet ! yet!YET!!- pai chip hai! mo..

    i have learned my hand is better than any trash thai female.
    .
    fake smile , money grubbing paracites they are ..

    i know how to speak spanish fluently and visit south american countires often !

    aint no mo asia fo me neva eva a gain.

  12. The first and foremost lie is that there is such a thing as a Thai. It’s a fabrication. There is no ‘Thai’ just as there is no ‘American’ way of doing things.
    What there is and this is truth…is self-respect. Thai nationals who have self-respect do not use lies as a way of saving face. They may use a white lie as any other people would do in situations where confrontation is best avoided. However a good number of Thais will use ANY lie to exploit a situation and take no accountability for their actions. If you catch them in the lie they expect you to give them the license and protect their face. By doing so you break your own face (integrity).

    There is ONLY one way to save face/not lose face. It is a universal truth. Integrity.

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