How Important is Face in Thai Society?

I saw an article in The Nation today about a Thai man that set himself on fire in a street. Why did he do it? From the looks of the article I’m going to guess it had a lot to do with face he was going to lose when he couldn’t give his family money so they could hire rice pickers for the harvest. The family was counting on him for money apparently and he wasn’t able to give it because his employer cheated him out of the money (which may or may not really be the case – but no matter).

I’ve written about the Thai concept of ‘face’ a few times here at this blog and also at some of my other sites. Without going deeply into it – face is the backbone of Thai social interaction. Face is akin to respect or value… worth in Thai society. A Thai person gains face by doing the right thing in the eyes of others. He gains face when he overlooks mistakes or errors by another person and instead encourages the person to try to do better the next time. He gains face when he has friends in high paying or highly respectable positions in Thai culture and is seen with those friends. He gains face when he has accumulated wealth himself or in some position of power.

Losing face occurs when someone tells a truth that hurts to your face or behind you back. If someone is gossiping about you behind your back you are losing face with those people because you’re being spoken about negatively. The things said might be right on and truthful, or they might be lies but either way – face is lost when you find out.

Losing face occurs when a man’s girlfriend goes with another guy instead of him. Thai men will often kill the other man or kill the girlfriend. Thai women usually kill themselves it seems.

Losing face might occur if you have a temper that easily flares up and causes you to become loud in public or to hit someone or worse. Losing temper or getting emotional (negative) causes loss of face. Being stupid and being found out causes loss of face. Gambling and losing a lot will have people talking and you’ll lose face. Being wrong and having someone point it out causes a loss of face.

Losing face is something every Thai strives to avoid – even more so than building face because I think naturally all Thais have an idea in their mind that everyone else has face until they lose it. It’s a given that people have a decent level of face until they show that they don’t deserve it.

For some reason the man that killed himself by fire was going to lose face whether because he wasn’t bright or quick enough to see that his employer was going to screw him out of his pay or whether he was just powerless to do anything about it when he found out he was going to be screwed out of his money. It doesn’t matter whether he lost it gambling it away or for whatever other reason – the whole point is that he couldn’t pay his family money they were counting on to be able to harvest their rice. He was going to face a severe loss of face within his family and that was unacceptable to him.

It brings to mind some discussions I’ve had with my girlfriend about her needing to give money to her parents because they can’t take care of themselves anymore. I understand it in her case. I’ve met her entire family and my girlfriend was basically brought up by her aunts and uncles because her parents couldn’t do it. Literally, couldn’t. I won’t go any deeper than that about it.

When your Thai girlfriend or Thai husband or whomever tells you that they need to send back a couple thousand baht to their family so they can help support them it’s really in your best interest to do so. A couple thousand baht – even 5,000 baht – I don’t see a problem with. If you’re sending 10,000 or more baht each month I guess if there were extenuating circumstances then it might still make sense. Anything over that and I’d have to wonder – why must it be so much?

I’ve met guys here in Thailand that send 0 baht per month and I’ve met guys that send 25,000 per month to their Thai tee-rak’s family. 25,000 baht is a lot of money for family support each month and in my mind wouldn’t be justified for any but the most urgent need – perhaps your tee-rak has 17 kids that her parents are taking care of or maybe her mother needs some 24-hour nurse care and dialysis that costs a lot of money, or something like that.

Sending something is probably necessary – especially if the family knows the daughter or son has a farang partner. All their needs must be taken care of, so now the son or daughter should take care of the parents needs too. It’s Thai societal expectation – this is the way life goes. A son or daughter loses a lot of face if they can’t contribute to ma and paw’s monthly income. After all – the son or daughter went to college and can get a decent job making more than enough to take care of their own monthly expenses AND send some home. That’s the whole goal. That’s the reason most young educated Thais head for Bangkok to work outrageous hours (10-14 per day a lot of them with the commute). They need to make enough for themselves AND their parents. Girls have it extra hard it seems like because frequently the sons are screw-offs and don’t send money home to help. The family forgives this – but the girl’s are then held to a higher standard. The girls are put under more pressure to come through then.

So, this guy set himself on fire in the middle of a street which showed me how much face means inside a Thai person’s head. It’s everything to them. It’s their whole world. If you cause a Thai to lose a lot of face – they might as well burn themselves in the street – the pain is less than they feel inside over losing a considerable amount of face.

Thai man immolates self … (The Nation 10/30/2008)

Author: Vern

I’m an American expat living in Thailand. I like to write informative pieces about life in, living in Thailand, including topics like: Thai People, Thai Culture, Nightlife, Technology, and I have published a lot of photographs, videos, and even books on Thailand that you can find at ThailandeBooks.com. There are many photographs of Thailand here – feel free to share with attribution (a link back to the home page).

All written content on this site by Vern Lovic. Contact me at Google+.

7 thoughts on “How Important is Face in Thai Society?”

  1. hi iam looking for advice really ive met a nice thai girl and we have been together for almost 2 years she has never asked me for 1 penny i hope to get married this year but iam not sure how much money i should be giving the family any advice would be grateful many thanks dave

    1. Hi Dave… thanks for writing. I get the feeling I still don’t see the whole picture… Not enough details here to tell you much. If the girl is high-so from Bangkok the family will want a lot – probably. If from Isaan – 100,000 is enough. My wife’s family asked for nothing… it was never mentioned. They’re not well-off at all but just never considered that there would be any money for marriage of they’re daughter. Some guys give 30k, some 50k, some 100k. I’d say if you’re going to be close to the family you’ll want to start off on the right foot… and give 100k whether or not they ask. If you have it and it won’t kill you. It gives your wife some face too… Make sure you let the family, your wife -everyone know – you’re not a piggy bank and you may not ever give them money again… (if they don’t need it). If the parents cannot work – and relied on the girl and other siblings to give $ – that’s another thing. You’ll have to give your share. Pity the farang that marries the only child. lol. Good luck…

  2. I’m writing a paper on international business negotiations and the concept of ‘losing face’ arose when discussing relationship orientated cultures. A very interesting read; good work!

    1. ha! That coming from a Thai girl… who grew up outside Thailand… but still. Your mom must have carried some of that over into your upbringing Line – maybe subtle influences…

Comments are closed.