Embarrassment in Thailand
Face is just about the biggest motivator in Thai society; face and money, which means status, and status confers Face, as does increasing years, a good job (money and status), any uniform, or being a teacher, which is the noblest profession after the monkhood.
Face is difficult to explain because it is difficult for foreigners to grasp completely. However, causing anyone any embarrassment is considered to cause a loss of Face to the embarrassed and the embarrasser. This is why Thais are famous for not complaining. It is also probably why Thai children cannot fail an exam if they can afford to go higher education. It would just cause too much embarrassment to have to tell a rich kid that he had failed, resulting in a loss of Face all around.
The upshot of this is that degrees obtained in Thailand are not recognized in any other country. However, since none but the richest Thais ever look for professional work abroad, and they are usually educated abroad too, this doesn’t seem to matter.
I know someone who was invited to live in the USA. She said she had a degree and so would be able to support herself, but her visa application was denied because her qualifications were Thai and deemed worthless. How embarrassing is that?
However, unfortunately for Thais, the authorities in other countries don’t play by the nice rules demanded to save Face.
A week ago, six of went out for a meal and the vote was for a barbecue. In rural Thailand, the common routine, is to just help yourself to the raw ingredients from large trays placed around the dining area. These typically contain vegetables, angel hair spaghetti, pork and prawns. You cook the food at your table on mini-barbecues and keep going back for more supplies until no-one can eat any more. So, the tureen of prawns ran out, as they always do. Nobody on the six full tables at the restaurant would tell the management because of the embarrassment it would cause to suggest that he should have noticed for himself.
I persuaded one of our party to report the shortage and a three-gallon bucket of prawns was delivered. People from every table jumped up to grab a plateful.
Anyway, it soon became apparent the prawns were muddy. They were river prawns and hadn’t been kept in clean water for a day to flush themselves through.
Nobody would report that, so when the manager passed by, I tried to, which resulted in him having to ask my wife what I was trying to say, as I knew that it would. She awkwardly and very politely told him the truth.
He looked at me, said ‘Thank you’ and shook my hand.
The point of all this is that the restaurant has a good name, but if thirty-six people had told their friends the next day that there weren’t many prawns, people would have gone elsewhere. Not only that, but being a good restaurant, I’m sure the boss had paid for clean prawns, and so had been cheated by his supplier.
However, armed with the relevant knowledge, he was in a position to do something about the problems and maintain the good reputation of his business, which is worth a lot more than a little embarrassment.
I’m afraid that Thais are going to have to learn how to deal with embarrassment and Face in general, if they are going to be much more than they are now.
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Podcast: Embarrassment in Thailand