Thai Culture Guide >> Save Face in Thailand
Thailand is a country with a complex cultural fabric and set of codes for appropriate social behavior and to the average western visitor, this can present an interactive environment that is diversely different from what they might be used to at home. Whether you are visiting Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket or even some remote village it's good to know a few cultural polities.
Much like the rest of SE Asia, there is the concept of 'saving face' under which values such as self respect and respect of others in the social hierarchy are paramount. Adhering to these social codes is what allows Thai society to function smoothly and to offer less conflict and episodes of violence than is the norm elsewhere.
Buddhist beliefs contribute significantly to what is considered acceptable behavior in Thai society, contributing to a solid set of social mores that are followed by the majority of its members. Conservatism and discretion are at the heart of these mores, dictating that individuals shy away from extremes of behavior, less risk offending others.
As guests in the country, holidaymakers are obliged to consider how their own behavior might impact on the locals and hence how they might need to curb certain habits or avoid actions that have the capacity to offend. Don't go shirtless in the steamy Bangkok sun, or insult the locals in Chiang Mai with inappropriate behavior.
Displays of affection in public places are not part of Thai society and while the holding of hands between partners is gradually gaining more acceptance; kissing or even more intimate exchanges are certainly likely to cause locals to offer looks of disapproval between themselves. Related to this is the concept that sex in Thailand is very much something that should stay in the bedroom and visitors would be wise to take note of this, particularly with regards to their dress which should be modest and not a blatant advertisement of their sexuality.
Male travelers walking around the cities without shirts will gain little respect from the locals, as will females clad in scanty outfits of any description. At the beach, in Phuklet for example, things are somewhat more relaxed and various states of undress are tolerated however visitors would be wise to take note of what the locals do and try to follow suit. Western women won't see Thai ladies sunbathing topless on the beach and hence should refrain from doing so themselves regardless of whether other female bathers have decide to flout convention. In the north, in Chiang Mai, there is a more conservative and traditional approach. Comprehensive Thailand travel and tourist resource
Society is everything in Thailand and all members know their place and do their utmost to be aware of and respect the places of others. Respect can be shown in a variety of ways and while it's polite to offer it to everyone interacted with, the onus is on offering it to those older, wealthier or of a higher social status than yourself. Thais meeting and greeting each other be it for the first time, with occasional frequency or on a regular basis, will always show respect for one another if a difference in status is apparent and such convention will be observed until intimacy and familiarity dictate otherwise.
A gesture known as a wai is the traditional form of respectful greeting and involves bringing the hands to the chest in prayer position in a graceful motion. Additionally, the greeting sawadee plus the suffix khrap if spoken by a male and kha if spoken by a female, is offered. The rules of who you should and shouldn't wai can be complicated and visitors won't be scorned if they neglect to offer a wai where appropriate, however as a general rule, wai-ing those older than yourself or returning a wai when one is offered to you is considered polite behavior.
The king in Thailand is top of the social hierarchy and commands the respect of all of his subjects, which, we might add, he gets willingly as well as sheer adoration and admiration, the like of which is seen in few of the world's monarchies. Visitors need to be sensitive to the position of King Bhumibol (Rama IX) in Thai society and in the hearts of its members. Disrespecting the king is not only a cultural taboo but a serious offence punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Few visitors would seek to actively speak-ill of the king or pursue action that would deliberately insult the monarchy however small things like standing for national anthems in public places and not defacing any image of the king including those on local currency, need to be observed if you are to avoid offending the locals and bringing disdain upon yourself.
Even in a big westernized city like Bangkok, which is full of tourists and not really genuine Thailand, some politeness to local customs goes a long way. Bangkok people are used to 'rude' foreigners but delighted when you make an effort. Tourist and travel guide to visiting Bangkok
Finally the concept of 'face' is integral to everyday living, equating to pride and self respect and the preservation of it for one's own benefit and the benefit of others. Thais will go to great lengths to 'save face', manipulating situations, speaking gentle untruths or avoiding saying anything at all for fear of compromising the pride of others or having their own pride compromised.
For visitors, perhaps the only applicable aspect of this complex concept is that pertaining to displays of anger. Losing your temper in public only results in loss of face to yourself which will bring no resolution to the situation. Publicly drawing attention to the shortcomings of others will result in their loss of face which is even less likely to provide you with a favorable outcome. The sensible visitor shrugs his/her shoulders, says "mai pen rai" (it doesn't matter) and walks calmly away from the situation.
About the Author:
Andy Burrows is a journalist and writer who extensively traveled throughout Thailand and knows everything about the country.