1 Thing to Keep in Mind when Traveling to Thailand
“You give someone the middle finger here on the street, it could get you shot.” ~ Chiang Mai Expat
I met a colorful expat in Chiang Mai. His name is Gary.
Gary has a Brooklyn accent that makes Vinny Gambino from My Cousin Vinny sound like a hick. He has the no-nonsense Brooklyn attitude to match, as he lived in BK until he moved to Thailand.
Although it’s rare for someone to get shot over a perceived slight during a traffic altercation, what my man G said was dead on true as far as the face-saving culture in Thailand.
From customer service interactions, to perceived insults, to any circumstance that manifests in Thailand, you will get along just fine if you recall my 4 word Thailand mantra: Be Nice Be Polite.
If you are not nice, and try to embarrass or humiliate people, you will run into lots of problems.
Face Saving Culture
During a wedding in the US yesterday I spoke to a few folks about the face saving ways in Thailand.
I explained how you never intentionally shame or embarrass someone in The Land of Smiles. Even if it means lying to them. Because this is how they do it. The culture, ya see?
This means no shaming customer service representations because the customer is not right, or wrong; the customer finds themselves in a face-saving culture, so be nice, be polite.
Many folks in the West believe that handing someone money for a good or service entitles you to get angry and embarrass someone or humiliate someone to demand a certain level of customer service or to vent life’s frustrations, directing your misery onto someone else.
But in Thailand, treating anybody – a service employee, or contractor, or anybody – in anything other than a nice, polite, friendly tone is seen as a terrible offence. Quite disgusting, really.
In a good scenario, you will be entirely ignored by the customer service representative. In a worst case scenario, your life could be on the line.
I recall reading how 2 tourists stiffed tuk tuk drivers in Phuket a number of years ago. In addition to refusing to pay the driver, said tourists angrily insulted the driver, embarrassing him in public. The driver called 10 tuk tuk driver buddies who arrived with pipes and bats, and beat the shit out of both tourists, each of whom wound up in the hospital.
Again, these violent experiences are rare but could happen. Even if the person doesn’t feel that ashamed or angry, you will be alienated, ignored and will perpetuate a negative image that tells Thai to stay away.
How to Behave in Thailand
No matter what happens, be nice. Be polite. Do not try to embarrass or shame or humiliate people in public or private.
Even if you feel really really really angry, a simple eye roll or perhaps a deep exhale or best of all, walking away, is the way to go. No need to be an emotion-less cyborg. You are human after all. Just remember that strongly projecting your problems and feelings onto other folks is the quickest way to not live in harmony with Thai culture.
Thai folks will do the same in return. Even if you don’t get what you want, or feel annoyed about being cut off in traffic, or the person who said they’d work on your home today, shows up 3 weeks from now, without an explanation, this is at the core of Thai culture, and almost every person you meet in Thailand will be pleasant, on the surface at least, but most folks will be genuinely happy too.
Is This Face-Saving Bit Stupid?
No cultural norm is stupid. Cultural norms are just different among countries.
Tips for Living in a Face Saving Culture
After spending 2 years collectively in Thailand I have learned to seamlessly live in a face saving culture.
Here are some practical tips:
- understand and embrace the idea that no matter what happens, smile, nod and be nice; condition yourself to be pleasant in any situation, at least on the surface
- experience is your best teacher; learning through situations where folks appear to be lying to you, or deceiving you, or maybe where folks seem to come up short on customer service, or in dealing with someone who almost makes you fall off of your motorbike because of their dangerous driving, is the best way to harmonize with a face saving culture
- let go the urge to judge Thailand saving face as stupid, dishonest, backwards, or any other negative, fear-based judgment; it is not good or bad, but a way how a group of people choose to live
I hope gave you a little primer in the face saving ways of Thailand.
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