In the West, “Truth” is the most important consideration for everything. Lying is considered totally unacceptable in any situation. “Just the truth, and nothing but the truth.” If a person is put into an uncomfortable or inconvenienced position because of the truth, so be it. Americans are on a never-ending struggle to uncover the “truth”. History is constantly revised to show the real “truth”. Truth is upheld as a sacrosanct principle, perhaps one of the very foundations of Western Civilization.
The Thai model for truth is totally different. To understand it, you have to understand the concept of “saving face”. This is a hugely important idea in Thailand, and is an idea in which politics, business, academics, the military —- everything, is built around. “Losing Face” means anything that can cause a person to be exposed, put in an uncomfortable situation, be caught doing bad things, look stupid, look ignorant, or be associated with people who act improperly. Losing Face must be avoided at all times, and for Americans bent on finding out the whole truth, this often creates a bit of conflict. In Thailand, if an expat is going to immerse themselves into Thai society, they are going to have to make changes in their thinking. Saving Face/Losing Face is a far more important factor in Thailand than the absolute truth.
If you are living in Thailand, you may find your Thai business partner or friend or even girlfriend has been lying to you. Actually, this is a fairly common situation. In an American way of thinking, you get upset, you have a discussion, come out with the truth and the guilty party apologizes and make amends. In Thailand, you are expected to not get upset at all and are expected to understand that in the Thai’s mind, it is bad behavior to let you know that something in the relationship is uncomfortable, negative or compromising in some way. A lie that sounds good is better social etiquette than truth that hurts. In fact, a Thai may not even regard an untruth as a “lie” (in the way we interpret the word). Often an elaborate fantastical story will be developed that is totally ridiculous (often laughable) in order to have everyone involved save face.
The differences between an American and a Thai interpretation of the word “Lie” is far different. In America, the word “lie” is completely negative, almost sinister. It is what criminals do when they don’t want to go to jail and politicians do when they want to get elected. A “lie” by itself is very wrong and deserves severe punishment. In the US, it is a crime (with jail time) to lie to any government official (unless you are a government official, apparently). Why? Americans and Europeans carry the burden of “guilt” throughout their lives, which prevents us from venturing into these areas which we believe to be bad. That cultural “guilt” is not there for most Asian cultures.
For a Thai, an accurate translation of the word “lie” would be “conflict avoidance”, “saving face”, “tact”, “not telling the truth”, “making excuses”. Not sinister at all, the word now becomes part of being polite. A lie is a regular component of the Thai communication system. Thais aren’t trying to be malicious when they lie. Usually they do it because they don’t want to offend you or make you feel bad.
When dealing with a Thai in any situation, you have to read between the lines. Never assume that people will tell you the straight scoop, that there is any true merit to their elaborate story, other than it is all designed to make all people involved look good. Listen carefully, smile, but in the back of your mind, show real understanding of why they are telling you this yarn. The Thai will consider the elaborate tale “proper etiquette”, and a Western expat should try to better understand the Thai and not dwell on the negativity of it all being a lie. Grieng Jai and Nam Jai.
Consider for a moment everyone in your group of friends agree to meet up and go somewhere special. One of the Thais that really does not want to go tells everyone she will come, and just before the meet up time, you call to make sure she is coming, and she says she will be there soon. And then, she never shows up and you realize all she said is total B.S. Never mind that her tale has actually created another uncomfortable situation for later (another story, no doubt, can be given for that situation). Confrontation on the obvious lie would not accomplish anything, so you just ignore it and go on with life. She will continue to be sweet and smiling and make similar non-commitments in the future. Sometimes you will get a lengthy story of how an old aunt from Isaan came in for a visit — haven’t seen her in years — and while having lunch, she choked on a chicken bone and she needed to go to the hospital, and then, and then….This is Thailand.
The correct reaction for an expat with encountering this situation is mai pen rai, forget it, it does not matter, water off a duck’s back. Don’t “catch” someone in their lie to you. Just go along with it, and everybody saves face, is happy and goes on.
If you viewed my example as done in the US, the scenario would be far different, but perhaps not as comfortable. Everyone in the group of friends agree to meet up and go somewhere special, except one friend, bluntly says “No, I don’t want to go”. Everyone pesters her, trying to persuade her, making her feel bad, but she just says simply “I don’t want to go, I don’t like it at this place”. Everybody gets a little angry at her and is a bit grumpy the rest of the day. Perhaps the Western way of absolute truth is not the perfect social situation. Maybe there is merit to doing things the Thai way?
Here is another common type of lie in Thailand: Perhaps your Thai friend does not like her job because she doesn’t like the way the boss treats her. So she tells her boss she has to quit in order to complete her studies. No one loses face and perfect karma is made all the way around. No harm, no foul. In America, the employee would look forward to ripping into the boss and telling him the “truth” about how he treats him. There will be no good consequences from that, but that’s the American way. Truth.
An expat can try and change things, and most Western husbands have tried with their Thai spouse, but what is the point? You ain’t here to revise a culture and reverse socialization. You’re here to get along, be happy and make life for others as pleasant as possible. As with the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon, just let it be
If you have had some experience with this Thai phenomenon or think I am just full of bunk, that’s OK and tell us more about it and why in the comments below. I write the way I see things, and am certainly open to differences of opinion.