Thai Culture & Ladyboys
I am talking about Thai culture here and so am going to cut right through all the nonsense you will read on tourism websites about LOS, the land of smiles by telling you that Thais have many smiles and one of them is the yim lessanai (yim-smile). This is a smile that masks wicked thoughts. Next time you experience a thai smile, remember, it may not be all it seems to be at first appearance. that does not mean that while a fruit vendor is smiling at you he or she is plotting your murder. They are probably thinking about how much more than the going price for a kilo of mangoes they can ask from a farang. The going price is between 30 and 50 baht a kilo but on Sukhumvit road I have seen them being sold for 140 baht a kilo.
Living in Thailand for a few years opens a lot of otherwise obscure windows on Thai culture. I sometimes wish I had stayed blind to lots of aspects of culture and particularly the thai/farang nexus. My weapon of choice to avoid a serious case of the blues is the sword of irreverence and the shield of humour!
So what about the truth in Thailand? Is it a dirty word? Not quite, but the Thai definition is certainly different from most westerners.
In the west we think that there is an easy answer – tell the facts, don’t hide anything, say it as it is. Thais have a very different relationship with the “truth”. We call it lying, but apologists for Thai culture will say that is just our own cultural bias, and it is more of a judgment than a correct assessment. I don’t agree; it is lying and it is often willfully used to fleece foreigner and thai alike. it is a sorry pestilence that eventually will be cured as the country develops.
The western model of truth often places truth ahead of other considerations, like being inconvenienced or put in an uncomfortable position by speaking the truth. We have sayings that confirm this: “Call a spade a spade”, or “Just the truth, nothing but the truth”. Lying is considered totally unacceptable to us, and the truth is upheld as a sacrosanct principle.
Saving face is more important than speaking the truth
The Thai model is totally different. The first thing to understand is the concept of “saving face”. This is a hugely important idea in Thailand. It means that anything that can cause a person to be exposed, put in an uncomfortable position, be caught lying, look stupid, look ignorant, or even be associated with people who act improperly, causes a person to lose face and is to be avoided by all means. You really need to understand this concept as it is applied across all aspects of Thai life; relationships, education, friendships and can be as innocuous as ‘keeping up with the jones’s’ or as pernicious as a refusal to accept responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions, including theft, infidelity or violence against another.
A ridiculous every day example happened when I was walking near Mor Chit with Annie and asked her to ask directions to the place we were going. She was really uncomfortable about asking and I got frustrated but now I know why. You ask someone for directions and he or she does not know. Rather than admitting that, they might tell you anything just to avoid the discomfort of saying that they have no idea. So they send you on a wild goose chase, but in their mind they did nothing wrong because principle number one was to save face. Even if you know that the directions could not possibly be correct, the right way to act is to pretend that you believe it, thank the person, and go and ask someone else. Thais rarely ask for directions!
“Lying” can be the best social etiquette
Or you might find out that a friend or business partner has been lying to you. Rather than getting upset, you need to understand that in the Thai’s mind, it is bad behavior to tell you something that is uncomfortable, negative or compromising in any way. A lie that sounds good is better social etiquette than the truth that hurts. Apply this model to a relationship or the many relationships between Thai and Farang.
Farang: ‘Do you love me darling?’
Thai: ‘Of course teerak’
You get the picture.
What is “greng jai”?
When dealing with Thais, you have to read between the lines. You can never assume that people will be straightforward with you – many times they will not. You might call it lying, but the Thais call it proper etiquette. There is a word for it in the Thai language: greng jai. There is no direct translation, but it means being considerate, polite, showing respect and making sure that nobody is losing face. This is a very important principle in the Thai culture.
In the west we generally choose the truth even if it hurts. In Thailand people will always choose greng jai over the truth. If the truth would hurt, then it should not and will not be told in Thailand. If there is a group of Thais and someone says something which is clearly not true, but it is greng jai, in the interest of harmony and good etiquette, then everyone will go along with the statement and pretend that it is true. And nobody will think of it as a lie. It is just the proper way to act.
How to keep your cool in Thailand
The concepts of ‘face’ and ‘greng jai’ mean you often cannot take at face value what a Thai is telling you.
The apologists would say: You should never challenge anyone openly since that would cause a loss of face. You should never raise your voice and show strong emotions since that will also cause a loss of face. If you do not know about greng jai and you insist on the western version of “truth”, people will still be polite to you and smile, but they will totally shut you out and you will get nowhere with them. I agree that in business it’s probably the right approach to submit to ‘greng-jai, but in personal dealings I do not hold with that idea. While there are many things wrong in the west we do hold some excellent values dear even if not everyone sticks to them.
Thais do have a concept called Sam Ruam which means that one should never get angry or seek confrontation. Although they seem to achieve this principle most of the time, when they do get angry, they have little control of their emotions as they get angry so rarely and some bloody incidents take place I can tell you. This is usually Thai on Thai, but not always!
Remember that greng jai always overrides the “truth”. So rather than a girl tell a hapless farang that she does not love him but merely wants him around to offer financial support to her family she will ‘lie’ because that is greng jai. She will also tell you that she is doing it to take care of her family. Thais brandish family as if it was a get out of jail free card, theologically speaking. But farangs should remember that her family is not his family!
The two sides to the “truth”
Once you get used to this concept, you will find that there are two sides to it. The challenging side is that it is much harder for westerners to do business or have relationships in Thailand because you can never expect a straightforward approach in your dealings.
Bangkok meter taxi drivers are frustrating because they are often just crooked enough to fool you while not making you actually get out of the vehicle. Once I learned my way to a few locations I began to notice some taxis choosing to take the least useful route to get somewhere. An example happened one night when Annie and I wanted to go to Sukhumvit 22 from Krunthonburi. The route that is simple and quick is along Rama 2 and up 22 from the south end, not along Sukhumvit. I told the driver to go this way but he ignored me and when I said in very bad Thai, ‘tamai aom, bi Sukhumvit?’ ‘Why are you going around and going along Sukhumvit Road’, he said the traffic bad the way I tell him. Annie did not speak and I wondered why Thai girls and ladyboys seem to have deference to taxi drivers while in the West we would not put up with it. Sitting in the traffic that the driver said he was avoiding I had had enough.
I had asked Annie to tell him to go the other way but she remained silent??? In the traffic jam, I took Annie’s hand and got out of the taxi. I gave him 100 baht as the meter showed 95 baht. The usual cost of this trip is 68baht!! When we got on the street I asked Annie why she had not told the driver to go the way we wanted. She was white with suppressed anger. ‘Cannot, I not want problem because angry too much’ She had been angry the whole time but kept silent. I told her that if she had told me as much I would have stopped the taxi as soon as I saw him go the wrong way. She said, ‘Ok, next time I say to you’. She knew that having asked the driver to go the way we wanted once, any further instruction or complaint would have sparked angry words or more. She did not try, choosing to employ ‘Sam Ruam’; control of the emotions and demonstrating, ‘Greng Jai’; a combination of good manners and respect even when it is undeserved.Perhaps to Thais there is no middle ground as far as the emotions go. Unlike foreigners who can shout, laugh, cry and fight one hour only to be in the opposite state the next, Thais do not want to risk losing control because those emotions belong to the individual. They are not for others to see and if they do the consequences can be extreme.