How to saving face in Thailand – etiquette dos and don’ts

Thailand is a country with a complex cultural fabric and set of codes for appropriate social behaviour 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 behaviour 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 behaviour, less risk offending others. Don’t go topless in Phuket, or insult the locals in Chiang Mai with inappropriate behaviour. 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.

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 favourable outcome. The sensible visitor shrugs his/her shoulders, says “mai pen rai” (it doesn’t matter) and walks calmly away from the situation.