Thailand - Face, Ego, Low Self Esteem
In the James Bond novel, You Only Live Twice, whose opening location is in Japan, Ian Fleming repeatedly refers to the notion of face.
Not enjoying a childish geisha party in which his face aches from continually having to perform a fake smile, but realising it is costing someone a lot of money, Bond tries to put a good 'face' on the whole thing.
When Bond and Tiger Tanaka begin a game of Scissors, Paper, Stone, Tigers promises to beat Bond and failing to do so will cause a great loss of face. Bond is aware of this and is at odds whether he should try to win or lose.
Before arriving in Japan, Bond is advised to practise sitting in the lotus position, even though he finds it very uncomfortable. The reason? He is told he will gain face by being able to sit on the floor this way.
I have no experience of Japan and therefore don't know how true this is. Would these things really gain or lose 'face' or does Fleming labour the point simply because the setting of the book is in Asia?
For a long time I had two big problems with the notion of 'face' in Thailand. Firstly, I got sick and tired of expats in Thailand bleating 'loss of face' to describe every instance of unusual behaviour in Thailand. It always carries the smug attitude that if you mention 'face' in Thailand you must be an expert on the local culture.
Could it have been because of greng jai or poot ao jai, or didn't the expat culture expert know about these other things. All I heard about was face, face, face. Further, it didn't explain anything. Why did a certain piece of behaviour result in a loss of face?
Secondly, I already had a notion of 'losing face', but this didn't correspond with events in Thailand that were claimed to cause loss of face.
The Western notion involves losing respect or being humiliated normally in a public situation, in which many people are made aware of the behaviour that caused the loss of face.
This isn't the same in Thailand and the most innocuous of things will apparently cause a loss of face. If I am driving and overtake another vehicle, this - apparently - causes a big loss of face. The result is the driver who I overtook makes it his life's mission to now overtake me. First, he will speed up behind me, tailgating as close as he can, and he will look for any opportunity to get past, even if it results in a collision.
In my example above I used the pronoun 'he' and this was very deliberate. The problem with inflated egos is very noticeable with Thai males, but not a problem at all with Thai females.
The ego of most Thai males is huge and there is a vastly over-inflated sense of self-importance. Many Thai males regard themselves as being the most able, most knowledgeable people there are. In addition to being large, the male Thai ego is also extremely fragile.
In the case of driving, every Thai male with a vehicle (no matter what kind of vehicle) will regard himself as being the most skilled, most accomplished driver on the road. The fact that Thailand has the second most dangerous roads in the world and that Thailand has never produced a world class racing driver in any form of motor sport contradicts this view, but Thai men don't see it this way.
If an ego is damaged, which happens very easily in Thailand, revenge will be sought. In the example I gave, the Thai man won't be happy until he has overtaken the vehicle that just overtook him. Driving on Thai roads is akin to driving on a race track and this is one of the main reasons.
Occasionally, the act of revenge is far more serious and in some cases it is fatal. Over the years, I have been shocked reading news stories in which people are gunned down and killed for the most innocuous reasons.
As with many aspects of Thai behaviour, this importance of the self goes completely against the religion that most Thais claim to follow. Buddhism teaches that there is no 'self'.
Why is this? I'm not sure, exactly, but I have some theories.
The first involves the importance given to men in Thailand over women. This, the same as face, seems to be an Asian thing. When China and India implemented one child per family policies to slow down population growth, it resulted in female infanticide and now in both countries there is an enormous surplus of males and a shortage of females.
The act of merit-making in Thailand is very high in the belief/value system. This in itself is a good thing, and there are a million ways that people can do good things to make merit, but Thais believe that certain wyas of making merit are better than others.
For most Thais it needs to be done very conspicuously at a temple through a Buddhist monk. Only men can become monks and thus, because of the importance of merit making and because the conduit through which merit can be made must be a man, men have a special status in Thai society.
Additionally, I think a lot of the arrogance Thai men are guilty of comes from a lack of worldly experience. They think they are so great because they have no source of reference and can only compare themselves against similar men.
As a teenager I played table tennis after school with some friends and started to believe I was quite good. I then had a try out at a club and my butt was whipped by a 12 year-old girl who was genuinely good.
In my early 20's I was quite arrogant about my own abilities, but then started working for one of the largest, most successful multination corporations that has ever existed. I worked with people who knowledge was leagues above my own.
Both experiences were very humbling and if you are only ever exposed to people the same as you, you never really understand your own ability or knowledge. Most Thais have never travelled outside of Thailand and lead very closed lives.
Low Self Esteem
Because of the strict hierarchy of Thai society many Thais continually defer to other people and acquite feelings of inferiority. Much kudos is given to university education, but Mulder states that only 20% of high school graduates are allowed to enter university.
Feelings of inferiority are one of the main reasons behind the street battles between rival technical college students. They want to feel good about themselves and not being to achieve this in a conventional manner they organise street battles, the winners of which take pride from their victories.
If a Thai already has feelings of inferiority and you say or do something to reinforce these feelings, it is something else than cane cause a loss of face.
Vindictiveness And Violence
If someone in the West suffers a loss of face, that is, suffers some kind of public humiliation there can be different reactions. An apology may be appropriate, or the person can do good things to make up for the bad things. The fact that he or she did something wrong and was caught out doesn't mean that vengeance will be taken against the person who uncovered the wrongdoing. If you do something wrong and get caught, it's your fault.
The attitude is different in Thailand and it is something that makes Thailand quite a frightening place. Firstly, it is very easy to cause a loss of face because the concept of losing face is different compared to the West.
Secondly, if someone loses faces they will seek revenge against the person who caused them to loss face. Going back to my example above, this can just be a Thai driver overtaking you because you overtook him.
Sadly, in some cases it is far more serious. There is a huge number of illegal, unregistered firearms in Thailand. Many Thais own guns and many are stupid enough to use them. Even Thais who aren't stupid will use shoot if they have a gun.
There is a situation that I refer to as 'red mist' and to witness a Thai when the red mist descends is scary. they enter a state of mind where there is so much rage that they cannot control their actions. they also don't know how far to go or when to stop.
People get shot and murdered fairly regularly in Thailand and even gangs of youths that attack other youths with fists and sticks won't stop until the victim is dead or unconscious.
Thailand has a very dark side. Fortunately, it is a side that most tourists will never see, but if you are unfortunate, or if you live in Thailand for a long time, you will encounter it from time to time.
Culture is extremely powerful and you can't do anything to change it. And why, as a foreigner in Thailand, should you believe that you have any right to change the culture? Think how you would feel if foreigners moved to your country and expected you to give up your culture and accept theirs.
If you live in Thailand, or visit Thailand often, you can't do anything about changing cultural behaviour, but there are good reasons for having an understanding of it.
Firstly, it simply helps to explain behaviour that you find strange or unusual. For example, if you understand poot ao jai and a plumber doesn't turn up after he absolutely promised to turn up, you will know why.
Secondly, knowing how things work in Thailand can help you to get things done. Thai society has a very strict hierarchy, there is a lot of deference to people higher in the hierarchy, and Thais lower in the hierarchy have feelings of greng jai towards those above. If you want to get something done, don't waste your time with underlings and make a point of getting to know people who can get things done. Social networks are real in Thailand, not Facebook.
Thirdly, and this applies very much to the notion of 'face', not understanding certain things can be extremely dangerous, even fatal. I seem to remember some years ago a story about a German guy driving in northern Thailand somewhere who expected Thai drivers to behave like German drivers. They didn't and when he made his displeasure known he was shot dead.
Thai men have huge, but very fragile egos and to damage an ego can have serious consequences.
Other Thai Culture Pages You May Be Interested In
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One of the great things about visiting Thailand is that hotels are plentiful and a lot cheaper than in most other countries. Each link on the right will take you to the relevant page on the Agoda website where you can see photos, read reviews, and book on-line. I use Agoda to book all of my own hotels in Thailand and the Southeast Asia region. Agoda hotel rates are usually always the lowest and I have received good customer service, therefore I am happy to recommend the company to other people. Here is some analysis I did regarding booking hotels in Southeast Asia.
Booking.com used to be more expensive than Agoda, but when I have checked hotel prices recently I have found their rates to be quite competitive. Unlike Agoda, you don't need to pay at the time of booking with Booking.com - you can simply pay at the hotel when you check in. Also, Booking.com show you total prices whereas Agoda show you a price and then add on 17% for tax and service charge.
If you wish to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined.
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