Losing face is a key concept (and practice) of daily life in Asia and consequently also in Thailand. In this post we will only talk about “losing face,” because if you don’t lose it, you save it. In fact, after losing face, it’s very hard to get it saved anyway. So stick to “not losing it,” and not letting somebody else lose it, and things will be just fine.
So what is losing face?
Well, you could say that you lose face when you lose your social standing, reputation, influence, dignity, or honor, or a combination of all that.
As a traveler or expat it’s an important concept to get acquainted with, being aware of the potential impact your actions may have on others or on yourself in Thailand.
It’s essential, because if you have lost face or made somebody else lose face you won’t get much done from those who are affected or know about it. It can make your stay in Thailand quite uncomfortable, to say the least.
But when do you lose face?
Raising your Voice or Getting Angry
Raising your voice or getting angry in public is seen as not-done. When you cause a scene it makes you and bystanders lose face through embarrassment. Even if you are in the right, you’ll have lost face. Try to always stay patient and calm and try to find a solution. In Thailand, you are expected to just smile in difficult situations.
Humility and Boasting
Humility is seen as a very honorable trait. Individualism is not encouraged in Asia. You don’t brag. Yet, you can and should give praise to others, especially to older people, people in higher authority, teachers, and parents.
Negotiating and Bargaining
When you negotiate prices in Thailand, mind that the seller should not lose face. Offering to pay too low a price or being inflexible with what you want to pay will not help the situation.
You always should meet the seller in negotiations. Always give in on the final price. In that way both will have a win-win situation, without any of the parties losing face. It’s all about how you make the seller feel.
Pointing Out Mistakes
This is something you should never do, certainly not with others witnessing it! It’s a sure way to let somebody else lose face horribly. It’s one of the main reasons why Thai students always pass their tests at school – a teacher will never (and by law, actually cannot) fail them.
It’s also the reason why you never ask a Thai student in the classroom to answer a question of which you are not a hundred percent sure he or she will know the answer.
Moreover, by failing students, you, the teacher will lose face also – because it shows that you are not a competent teacher. Why else would a student fail?
Don’t correct someone’s English. It’s not appreciated unless they specifically ask you for help. It’s a bit problematic, because it also means you basically cannot ask for what the person means or if he or she can please repeat what was just said. Moreover, a Thai will pretend to understand what you say, even if he or she doesn’t understand your language (else it’s being impolite), with all the bizarre consequences of that.
Be very cautious, better to avoid, to have friendly physical contact (like for instance hugging) with someone of the opposite sex. Also, never stroke or touch someone on the head. The head is seen as the most sacred part of the body and touching it is reserved for family members only.
Showing the Soles of your Feet
The feet are seen as the lowest part of the body, the less sacred. Always sit in a way that avoids showing the soles of your feet or shoes to the face of another person. It’s considered extremely impolite. Not only you, but also the other person loses face when doing so.
Always show extra respect to all elders, people of rank, title, or uniform. It will help you to get things done smoothly. And if it doesn’t help, believe me, it certainly will not help if you don’t show the appropriate respect.
There are some more occasions and situations where you run the risk of losing face or let someone else lose face, but I think you get the gist of it now. Keep all this in mind when traveling or living in Thailand or in other Asian countries. It will ease your ways.