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The concept of ‘losing face’ and ‘saving face’ (เสียหน้า sia5 naa3) will take you years to get used to, particular because western culture frowns upon it. But if you are going to keep your mental sanity from the constant attacks of cultural shock, and wish to truly integrate yourself into Thai society, you must both learn and follow the rules of ‘saving face’. In this article I’ll show you how to do it in a manner consistent with your western values.
What is losing face? You lose face when you embarrass yourself, when you lose an argument, when your girlfriend slaps you in public, when you’ve cheated/lied and were publicly caught, when you didn’t get something your way, or when you accidentally walk into a parked car in front of your friends. Plenty of examples.
I have a friend who’d go to the temple often. This girl who liked him would ‘girl up’ with makeup and dresses, then publicly flirt with him whenever he went to the temple (she knew his schedule, and waited for him). The issue was that she’d do it in front of everyone else, embarrassing him around the monks and other elders. He’d complain to me that she caused him to ‘lose face’. He wasn’t that interested in her, making it all the more annoying.
Another example. Let’s say you work for the Thai government and your superior decides to replace you with someone else (for whatever reason). If he outright fires you, that will cause you to lose face in front of your friends, your coworkers, and your family. Instead, he will do what some refer to as ‘transfer to an inactive post’. Basically remove you, make you irrelevant, yet do so without actually firing you. He might even refer to it as a ‘promotion’ or an ‘important task only you have the skills to handle’. Whatever it is, now you can go home to face your wife and say ‘I was promoted’, hence save face. Thais actively seek out to ‘save face’ as a conflict resolver.
Sometimes a Thai would put himself into bad situations or cause him/herself many problems, or perhaps even ignore a problem, just to save face. For example, the more crude types of people in society (of any country) will get into a fight resulting in prison time or worse, just because he was called names at a bar and felt he lost face. This is called ‘selling your clothes to save face’ (ขายผ้าเอา หน้ารอด), where you’ll sacrifice everything you have just to save yourself the embarrassment. Or when your name is Sarah Palin and you said something dumb about Paul Revere, but instead of admitting the mistake you continue the charade somehow convinced you can ‘save face’. As shown by my examples, foreigners are also very concerned about face loss, but it’s at the subconscious level and most don’t realize it. Thais do it consciously, and it’s a skill you should learn if you plan to make Thailand your home.