Moving To Thailand | Learning the Customs (Saving Face)

May 11, 2011 2 Comments by afamilyinmotion
Saving Face | A Family In Motion

Saving Face | A Family In Motion

Saving Face or Face Negotiating Theory

The concept of saving face is one that we as Westerners may be familiar with on an abstract level, but it is an incredibly difficult phenomenon to fully understand as an outsider, and difficult to explain succinctly when we as a culture have little experience with such a thing. In the most basic definition, saving face means avoiding public embarrassment at all costs, while maintaining your status within a specific social network. But it is also much more complicated and nuanced than that. Of course, some practical examples of saving face are necessary to demonstrate how it works. To an outsider, these examples may seem absurd, perplexing or even infuriating, but in a good-natured attempt to assimilate, my husband and I will not judge, only observe objectively and try to learn (with a few chuckles here and there that can’t be helped).

Managing Conflict Through Saving Face

The first example involves my mother-in-law, her sister-in-law (Y) and sister-in-law’s teenage grandson (F).  The latter two (Y & F) reside in Bangkok and have never lived outside of Thailand.  My mother-in-law has lived in the US for nearly 40 years and has assimilated many Western behaviors and cultural patterns.  The story goes as follows: F was having some friends over one evening, and while the details are fuzzy, what is known is that there were some candles lit and some imprudent behavior (best guess: watching porn). The kids got boisterous, the candles got knocked over, and there was a minor–but still serious–kitchen fire.  F claimed that the electricity in the house went out, thus the need for candles. According to F, during the “power outage”, he had “fallen asleep” and the candles fell over on their own.  Y further complicated the story by defending F, explaining that he had experienced a dizzy spell which caused him to knock over the candles accidentally.  My mother-in-law, although Thai, refuses to subscribe to ridiculous falsities and is not the type of person to remain silent.  Y’s statement–absurd, unnecessary and beside the point–puzzled my mother-in-law, who accused her (in front of the entire family clan) of shielding the boy from consequences and teaching him to shirk responsibility for his actions. Well, my mother-in-law realized later that she had committed a major faux pas that evening. She had embarrassed both her sister-in-law and her sister-in-law’s grandson by pointing out the obvious dissonance in their ridiculous excuses for the fire. She realized later that neither was trying to shirk responsibility for the accident, but rather, they preferred not to admit in front of an outsider (my mother-in-law) that the kid had made a big mistake. Most likely, he would have been reprimanded by his grandmother in private, but to draw attention to his faults in public is extremely humiliating.  By contradicting her sister-in-law and pointing out the flawed story, my mother-in-law deeply embarrassed her.  Ouch.  Someone lost face.

Giving Face Instead of Saving Face

The second example involves my husband as a young man teaching English in Chiang Mai.  He recounted a sticky situation that he admitted to handling poorly.  A local high ranking immigration officer and her daughter were attending his level one English course at AUA.  While the daughter was an excellent student, her mother was struggling to keep up with the coursework.  Near the end of the semester, my husband needed to renew his visa. He payed a visit to the local immigration office where his student ran the show.  Instead of processing his visa like any other expat, he was asked to stay and visit in the mother’s private office.  They chit-chatted cordially for a bit, and then the mother got down to business. She wanted to be with her daughter in the next English class and asked if my husband would grant her access to the next level.  My husband felt that she wasn’t ready to advance, but didn’t immediately commit to an answer.  On his way out of the immigration office, he was given a large basket of rambutans (an expensive Thai fruit) and a ride home in the officer’s Mercedes by her personal driver.  Subtle.  My husband, not clueless but urged on by a sense of morality, eventually separated the daughter and mother by failing the latter. Of  course, the mother was furious.  She had lost face in front of her classmates and her own daughter.  In retrospect, my husband says he would have handled the situation differently.  He would have taken the mother aside privately to explain that he felt she wasn’t ready to advance to the next level. My husband would go on to tell her, however, that if she was willing to work harder he would pass her so she could be in the same class with her daughter.  This way, the mother would be responsible for the decision, whether she chose to struggle in level 2 or acknowledge the need to repeat level one.  As it stands now, he’ll probably never get his visa renewed in Chiang Mai again, so we’ll have to avoid traveling there when close to our expiration date.

To further illustrate the concept of saving face, I will give another example. My sister lived in Japan for two years immediately after completing college. While there, she started dating a Japanese man. My sister is an argumentative type and loves a heated conversation (she’s now a lawyer and spends all her time compiling convincing arguments). She once tried to initiate a debate with her then-boyfriend by asking him his opinion on abortion. He told her simply that he thought it was bad. Grossly oversimplifying her view, and for the sake of a good argument, she told him she thought abortion was good, and asked him why he thought it was bad. Instead of defending his answer, he changed his mind and agreed with her, saying that she was right, abortion was good. He didn’t want to be combative or contradictory and wanted to avoid an argument at all costs, so he told her what he thought she wanted to hear. While we Westerners might think this behavior hinders the development of an open and honest relationship by suppressing one’s own feelings for the sake of pleasing another, it is actually considered quite polite and necessary in most Asian cultures. Well, my sister (like my mother-in-law) had no patience for face-saving tactics, and promptly dumped the boyfriend.

So, did this ex-boyfriend really not have an opinion, or did he just not feel comfortable sharing it with my sister? Is there an inherent danger in a society that is taught not to contradict or question authority? I worry about our daughter enrolling in a school in Thailand where she will get into trouble for expressing an opinion that may conflict with the generally accepted status quo. If you suppress your own needs, desires, beliefs, etc. in the higher pursuit of social harmony, will you eventually cease to think for yourself or no longer understand your personal needs?  Or, like so many psychologists theorize, will you suppress these feelings to the point where they become distorted and rancid, and what once may have been a healthy feeling is suddenly dark, haunting and ghoulish?  Ok, maybe I’m tending toward the melodramatic, and reflecting on the flip side of the coin, wanton self-expression and debauched fulfillment of one’s every whim and desire may not be the best course either (Jersey Shore, anyone?)  Remember how stoic, impressively calm and beautiful the Japanese remained throughout the horror of the tsunami and the ensuing nuclear disaster?  I imagine most Japanese were freaking out inside, yet they remained incredibly composed on the exterior.  Just waging a guess here, but I doubt many Westerners (myself surely included) would react with so much grace and integrity in the face of a similar catastrophe.

So, why the laborious pains to look good and the unnecessary drama of saving face anyway? To be honest, I don’t really understand how it all works myself. I just know that it’s a really big deal to not offend people, especially people who reside within your social sphere. All of this sounds really complicated and makes Paul and me more than a little nervous when treading through such deadly ambiguities. Many times people will say one thing yet do something that directly contradicts what they just said. My husband encountered this the first time he was living in Thailand as a young man. Paul was vegetarian at the time, and he was visiting one of his cousins at mealtime. They were talking, and his cousin told Paul that he, too, was a vegetarian. He said this as he was eating a bowl of pork soup. The obvious contradiction puzzled my husband for many years. I don’t know if we’ll ever understand this man’s true intention in making such an inaccurate statement, but I interpret it now as an effort to relate to my husband and ingratiate himself into my husband’s social network.  I think also, as a Buddhist, this cousin abstained from meat on certain days, and though not a consistent vegetarian by any means, he had no problem borrowing this label, a convenience that hardcore vegetarians would hardly appreciate.

A friend of ours travels to China frequently for business.  While there, she must contend with her Chinese co-workers, and she complains of the exhausting practice of saving and giving face.  She feels that it is an enormous waste of time, and instead of fruitfully conducting business, she painstakingly bends over backwards to avoid offending anyone, or meticulously builds someone up who may have inadvertently been offended.  She says that just dealing with employees’ slighted emotions is a full-time job.  In this sense, I feel that dealing with employees is a universally taxing process, not unique to Asia, and one that I, too, struggled with constantly in our own business.  No one wants to be embarrassed, not in front of their peers and even less in front of their inferiors. So, perhaps the concept of saving face is not quite as foreign as initially perceived.

The practice of saving face makes words unreliable, and I realize that Paul and I will need to learn to communicate stealthily, relying on visual cues and the art of reading between the lines. It is complicated to navigate the murky contradictions between what people say and what they do or actually mean. In general, I am kind of slow to pick up on subtleties, and I tend to take almost everything at face value. Especially for me, I foresee this custom being a considerable challenge. I also expect it to affect us in daily interactions with strangers and family members, and while trying to start or conduct business in Thailand. Therefore, it is essential that we try to learn and understand this custom. We’ll just chalk it up as one more item in our long list of challenges to starting a new life in Thailand.

More reading on saving face:

Culture Shock! Thailand – A Guide To Customs & Etiquette

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  1. Lee
    9 years ago

    Adrienne, I am so with you on being stymied by the subtleties of behavior in Asian culture. Like you, I have a hard time reading what is really going on behind the words. I know I would find Asian culture difficult, and I applaud you for embarking on such an adventure. As for Ingrid, the school might teach Ingrid one type of behavior, but you and Paul will be modeling another behavior at home and she can learn both. Life will definitely not be boring!


  2. paultvanslyke
    6 years ago

    Thanks, we have been in active for quite some time, but we are going to start up again.


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