Losing face is a key concept and practice of daily life in Asia and consequently also in Thailand.
Now, in this post I’ll only talk about “losing face,” because if you don’t lose it, you’ll actually save it. In fact, after losing face, it’s very hard to get it back or 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 it is, you can lose face yourself because of something you did or not do, or you can make someone else lose face.
As a traveler or expat in Thailand it’s an important concept to get acquainted with, while being continuously aware of the potential impact your actions may have on others or on yourself.
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.
Now, 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 about prices in Thailand, mind that the seller should not lose face. Offering to pay too low 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 they will know the answer.
Moreover, by failing students, you, the teacher, will also lose face because it shows that you are not a competent teacher. Why else would a student fail?
Correcting someone’s English
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 they can please repeat what was just said. Moreover, a Thai will pretend to understand what you say, even if they don’t understand your language (for else they’re being impolite), with all the bizarre consequences as a result of that.
Be very cautious, and 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. In Thailand, the head is seen as the most sacred part of the body and touching it is reserved for family members or very close friends 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 (aspects of) the Buddhist religion, to all elders, monks, and people of rank, title, or in 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 certainly ease your ways.