Flexible Meanings for “Truth” and “Lie”. How an Expat in Thailand can Cope with it all.

elephant drawingIn 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.

Suicide linked with fear of ‘losing face’ – Northern Thais fear “loss of face” and have the highest suicide rates in the nation. – Bangkok Post – 03 September 2013

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21 thoughts on “Flexible Meanings for “Truth” and “Lie”. How an Expat in Thailand can Cope with it all.

  1. Not “bunk”, but fairly correct I think. And it is good for all to read this, otherwise each of us might mistakenly believe that this “lying behavior” is directed against only us, when it is actually part of society in general.
    In my opinion, this is not so much the need to save face as the wish to avoid direct refusal and confrontation (which is part of face saving, I admit). I am happy to fairly often use this tactic myself after a few years around here. I no longer worry about these lies and just move forward without pressing for the truth if it will be uncomfortable. Or with my girlfriend, once in a while I will go over the lie point by point and show how transparent is her lie, and then we both are rolling on the floor with laughter over the fact that she made the attempt in the first place.
    If you cannot deal with and accept the lies here as described in the above post, then you probably should not come here to do business or for any significant relationships with people in Asia.
    When a factory promises a delivery date and cannot keep to schedule, then there will be many excuses and often a new date promised which will be missed also.
    That’s life!
    In Asia.

  2. Generally, Asians lie to save face but that’s without any bad intention. I believe the intention is important. Also, there are Asians who do not like to tell ‘lie’. Not all Asians are like what you described!!

    • Thanks for the input. I am sure you are right. In defense, my posting is really about Thais and not all Asians. It’s a big continent, and definitely diverse.

  3. It’s actually more relaxing once one realizes and accepts the concept of saving face. Once you learn not to expect a straight answer, it releases you from the compulsion to drill down to the specifics. You can let it go and carry on with life.

    When a store employee tells me they don’t have a certain item, I just continue to look and can usually find what I want, but I have to admit that I rarely ask where something is knowing I’ll get an answer that will be less than useful. The answer “I don’t know” is also not an option for most Thais.

    When asking directions, it’s necessary to ask 4 or 5 different people and eventually someone will know and give you the correct answer (even if the first 2 or 3 have sent you in the wrong direction).

    • Very interesting. I too have noticed, when in a big-box retailer, no one seems to know where anything is. Drives me wacko.
      Please get to the bottom of this phenomenon and do one blog article about it.
      I cannot accept that this is nothing more than p-poor training, and I think I actually know it is.
      Never in other places have I had this experience of asking an employee to find for me an item I want to buy, and then having them just stand there wondering what might be their next move. One time I just gave a list of items I wanted to one of the asst managers and asked them to pick the items. Turned out, they were slower than I would have been, total disgrace for the world of retailing.
      This type of thing does not happen in Bangkok. Next time, TESCO, please do not hire children and flunkies to do a man’s job.

      • Yes, such is life in the countryside of Thailand outside of Bangkok. I think we just need to relax about it and not be in a hurry for anything It is hard to do that and be so patient all the time, but it is probably healthier for us all to develop the attitude of not letting things like that bother us.

        • Very good advice, and I do, like you, try to stay in the Thai frame of mind while in Chiang Mai. However, let us keep in mind also that this countryside retailing anomaly we see Chiang Mai is not due to any cultural difference or face saving, but is just a result of poor training, which is a further result of poor management. It is not caused by differences in the Thai culture, or it would also show up in Bangkok, as you say.
          Old time Southern Hospitality here in Chiang Mai, perhaps, with the old time southern slow speed that many in the US will feel right at home with.
          You will like it, I do, when I am not being driven wacko by an international retailer which should know better.

  4. You made a valid observation and in context of intimate relationship, an expat has a choice whether to accept a story that gets “up close and personal”. For most part what you say is valuable for newbies to know and understand. Good writeup.

  5. All your points are spot on, a very accurate description of the truth in Thailand. I agree that we have to adapt to this interpretation of the truth, and in many cases it is actually much more pleasant to deal with the Thai version of the truth than the American way of spitting the truth in your face. However there is one area where this can be quite challenging, and that is in the relationship arena. It can be quite difficult to deal with your Thai girlfriend or Thai wife if you can never be sure that what she is saying is what is really going on. That is where our western concept of ‘trust’ enters the picture. We equate ‘trust’ with ‘truthfulness’ in relationships, and the Thais do not.

  6. Sometimes I like the western ways, other times Thai (Aisan ways). In Western countries, what you see is what you get but not in Thai (Asian) countries. Thai ways as you described is similar throughout Asia including Japan and Papua New Guinea. As an Asian, I have also often discussed with my Asian friends. We all agreed that the differences between Thai (Asian) ways and western ways can be confusing and ‘strange’ as well for Asian students studying in the west, especially initially. I believe Thai (Asian) ways is more pronounced in the rural areas of Thailand/Asia.

  7. Asians (Thais included) often find westerners’ frankness and ‘speaking their mind’ strange. We often like to read in between lines.

  8. My friend Victoria suggested your blog, and I see for good reason. Thank you for your insights into Thailand. My husband and I went to Thailand, Malaysia, Bali and Hong Kong in 2010 to escape the Winter Olympics here in Vancouver. No trip to Thailand would be complete without a visit to Chiang Mai, simply wonderful. This past winter we went to India, me for the first time, when I made this observation about life in India, which is not dissimilar to Thai culture, I think:

    “Most of India hums with a collective mind. It is a country where everybody and nobody’s important. It confounds, yet is infinitely wise…and just when it threatens to infuriate you beyond your forgiveness, it manages to redeem itself in some remarkably splendid way.”

    I believe you may have made a stop at Isaac Brock Society where you were greeted by a very rude individual who no longer contributes to the blog. I wish you would visit again…

  9. Great article. It’s refreshing to get some perspective on Thai culture with out all the negativity.

    Can someone tell me the best way to deal with the lies when it comes to relationships. My Thai girlfriend is a chronic liar and is very secretive about even trivial things. I’ve learned that calling her out on the lies only makes things worse. I can ignore a lot of the lies but after time the constant string of half truths and lies tends to breed skepticism and mistrust.

    Do you just have to concede the fact that resolution is never going to be an option? How do you have a constructive conversation when compromise isn’t an option.

    She is here in the states (east coast) pursuing a masters degree and I live in the Midwest. We will make plans for her to come visit and then she always comes up with some reason she can’t make it.
    She will not let me come visit or even give me her address.
    The funny thing is she constantly talks about wanting to see me, wanting to move to where I live.

    I was introduced to her by a mutual friend when I took a trip to Thailand. She was visiting family and ended up staying an extra 3 weeks to show me around. While there she would not let me pay for anything she took me to $300.00usd dinners, paid for all the hotel stays (La Meridian). Wouldn’t let me pay for cab fares or even a bottle of water at 7-11, so I know she’s not after my money because I don’t have any and she knows it. She comes from a very affluent family and has a law degree.

    Any thoughts on how to understand this crazy lady or what she’s up to. She’s in her mid 30′s and I’m in my early 40′s and like I say I ain’t got money.

    • I understand your experience, and it is common in a Thai girl/American guy relationship. Honestly, it seems to be unique with Thai women — the crazy wild tales to cover up something that is so trivial you wouldn’t probably even think about it more than a minute if she just told you the truth. What she is “covering up” with her stories of why she is unable to make her meetup commitment is probably very minor, and you really couldn’t even care, and I think that is the way you need to treat it — like really you don’t even care. Just blow off the silly stories (believe me, I know exactly what you are talking about because most Thai girls do this very same thing), and when the truth comes out, treat that like you don’t care either (and really you probably don’t). All her elaborate stories are to cover up anything that might make her look bad, but that is all in her own head. Over time, once she realizes you don’t really care about these sort of things, it will go away. I have been with my Thai wife now for quite a few years, and she has no elaborate stories (to me) because she knows I don’t care what she does. She can do what she wants, make mistakes, over spend on something, screw up her schedule or simply forget, and I am not going to get angry with her. When we have problems, I have learned to not say it was because of something she said or did. I don’t ask for apologies or expect one. A Western guy would have remorse if he made a mistake and apologize profusely. You have to realize, that isn’t going to happen from your Thai girl because that would make her look bad (perhaps only in her own eyes). Takes quite some time to get to that point where you both realize that it is OK to just be open. Up until that point, the Thai woman is always trying to cover up, and you will need to relax about it.
      It is all very different than the thinking in a Western mind. Despite the challenges, I think it is all worth it. Thai women have a lot to offer that you won’t find in other cultures. Best of luck to you.

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