Spirit of Thailand

Spirit of Thailand

Culture, Relationships,
Thai Massage, Traveling

The Truth in Thailand

What does it mean to be truthful? In the west we think that there is an easy answer – tell the facts, don’t hide anything, say it as it is. But it turns out to be a confusing fact that other cultures don’t necessarily agree with this definition.

Thais have a very different relationship with the “truth”. We call it lying, but that is just an interpretation based on our own cultural background, and it can be more of a judgment than a correct assessment.

Is there a correct definition for the “truth”?

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, as far as most Thais are concerned.

Yes, this is a mouthful, but you need to understand this when visiting Thailand.

Let’s look at some practical examples. 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 for them 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.

“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 often considered better social etiquette than a truth that hurts.

What is “greengjai”?

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 consider it to be proper etiquette.

There is a word for it in the Thai language: greengjai. There is no direct translation, but it means being considerate, polite, making sure that nobody is losing face. This is a very important principle in the Thai culture.

When is a “lie” the proper way to act

In the west, we generally choose the truth even if it hurts. In Thailand, people will mostly choose greengjai 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 accurate, but it is greengjai, in the interest of harmony and good etiquette, 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

This can be very confusing for foreigners. It means you often cannot take at face value what a Thai is telling you.

  • 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 greengjai 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.

In Thailand, you have to put your notion of truth aside to some degree and understand that what you consider a lie, the Thais might see as proper behavior.

They would not even understand what you are talking about if you try to tell someone they are lying. The word “lying” does not have the same absolute meaning as in the west. Remember that greengjai overrides the “truth” in most cases.

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 in Thailand because you can never expect a straightforward approach in your dealings.

On the positive side, it is very pleasant to not have to deal with harshness, direct confrontation, outbursts of emotion and aggression. The Thais override all of those with the famous Thai smile and with the greengjai attitude.

This is not about right or wrong, but it is essential to understand how concepts that we take for granted, like the truth, can be interpreted very differently in other cultures. It will help you make your stay in Thailand much more pleasant and enjoyable.

image of the the author, Shama KernThe author, Shama Kern, has been living in Thailand for two decades with his Thai wife. They have been exploring Thailand extensively. Shama can be reached at shama@shamakern.com

31 thoughts on “The Truth in Thailand”

  1. I have seen this many times, and sometimes it works, but it does not create genuine relationships between anyone. Furthermore, this lack of truth and need to not lose face keeps Thailand a very underdeveloped and troubled country because reality of the international scene and human justice can not take hold. How can progress be made when the Political and Business Elite use Greengjai to abuse the rest of the population? Also, this idea of not loosing face makes Education in Thailand a joke, a virtual show where nothing of real imporance takes place for most people. Cheating on tests, students not being allowed to fail, and people paying bribes for better grades, etc are not helpful in helping people live. Do parents and students spend time and money on a useless education? That is what it amounts to now and until Thais find a polite and realistic approach to life. So, as quaint and nice greengjai is, it is only helpful to the Political and Business elite.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment

      I have to agree with you as far as the educational system is concerned. The fact that Thai students cannot speak out openly and that teachers have a monopoly on being right and some other facts that you mentioned definitely stifle the learning system in Thailand. And this is no secret. I recently read a big editorial in the Bangkok Post where a Thai person was writing about all those issues as well.

      As far as “greengjai” is concerned, while I am sure that this can be and is taken advantage of in some circles, I have to say that it is still very pleasant to be treated in a friendly and considerate way, even if it is superficial sometimes. But after traveling all around southeast Asia, I still find the Thai people the most friendly and easiest to deal with.

      I know that there are negative things in Thailand as there are in all countries, but on balance I feel better here than in most places that I know.

      The intent of my article is not to criticize Thailand or its political establishment since this can be done with every country on the planet. My intent is to show how to understand the Thai mentality and how to cope with it while you are in Thailand. I do not see a right or wrong here.

      Every country in the world has good and bad sides, as do all people. It would not be realistic to expect Thailand or any other country to be close to perfect, that just does not go along with human nature. So I just look at the balance of things and see if the scale tips to the positive or negative side. And for me, the positive outweighs the negative in Thailand.

      Reply
      • Hi Shama! I’m doing a master’s thesis on problems in verbal and nonverbal communication in Thai – foreigner marriage and I’m really interested in this Bangkok Post article that you mentioned. Do you by any chance still have the link?

        Thanks a bunch!

        Martina

        Reply
    • I take classes in Thailand with other Westerners. The Thai instructors from time to time will graphically illustrate the difference in Thai vs. Western thinking, and make jokes about it.

      The farang example is a straight line from point A to point B. To be crude about it, “farang poot trong.”

      The Thai example is an elaborate and circuitous loop-d-loop from point A to point B, with many overlaps, crossovers, and backwards movement but finally reaching point B.

      My wife of 20+ years is Asian so familiar with this concept. But had seen it described in such an elegant form.

      Reply
  2. I have read your comments with interest and definitely find myself leaning to one side over the other. I have lived in Thailand for 3 years and have failed to find much that is “genuine” in Thailand. We lived in Bangkok for about 3 years, but now live in a “beach town”. What I have found is that countries stay 3rd world for a reason. The lack of development in Thailand is not an accident or bad luck, but the result of the lack of development of ideas and ways of thinking. Corruption and crime are rapant, and there are not too many smiles these days in Thailand, unless you are a tourist and somebody wants to seperate you from your money. There are many Thais that will actually shy away from westerners out of fear. Even relationships tend to be a sham in Thailand. About 90% of couples cheat on each other (look up the term “gig”), and a large portion of relationships here involve 70 year old “farang” with 20-30 year old women. Of course, the men are expected to financially take of the entire family as well. These relationships have to do more with business than anything else. My wife, who is Thai and from Bangkok, told me that girls form the east and north are taught from an early age to “marry a farang”. I was even surprised to find that one woman openly admitted that had her husband not been willing to “take care of” her entire family, then she would have found somebody else. Another women openly admitted that she wanted to “find an old farang so that, when he died, she could get everything”. Everything here seems to be anything but genuine, even love. So, in the spirit of “greng-jai”, you might find all of this OK, but Thailand will always be 3rd world until they realize that attitudes must develop before the country will develop. It is a country with vast poverty, filth, disease, crime, and corruption. Kids swim in the very waters where human waste is dumped. If you are a westerner with lots of money, this might all be fine and good as it may not affect you. You can stay at the Hilton and go to expensive tourist restaurants. However, if you are a Thai, life will probably not be so rosey. “Greng-Jai” may be polite, but it seldom accomplishes much, except to avoid a problem instead of fix it. Thailands problems will only get bigger. You can’t fix a problem until you realize there is a problem. Sticking your head in the sand accomplishes nothing, and Thailand seems to be a country where everybody has there head stuck in the sand………

    Reply
    • What can I say, all the points that you brought up are real. There are issues in Thailand that need addressing. However I would like to offer a perspective that balances things out.

      1. You say that most relationships are not genuine and just based on money. I cannot argue with the fact that there are many of those in Thailand, but I can tell you that I am married to a Thai woman. We have been together for 10 years and it is the best relationship of our lives for both of us. We never cheated on each other and we have a wonderful harmonious, loving connection. So it is possible to find a good relationship in Thailand, although admittedly it is not easy.

      2. You say that Thailand is dirty. I cannot agree with this. I have traveled a lot in Asia and I find that Thailand is quite clean compared to some other countries. I know it is not perfect, but to be fair we have to compare it with other developing countries and not with Germany or Australia.

      3. You say Thailand is poor. While it may be poorer than first world nations, it is the place where countless people from countries like Burma, Cambodia and Laos come to find a better life and better jobs. Again, we need to compare Thailand with developing nations in southeast Asia to be fair. And in this way it fares pretty well.

      Thailand does not have horrible slums like India or Brazil. In general everybody at least has something to eat, nobody is starving.
      Thailand has a good and efficient public transportation system with equal pricing for everyone which cannot be said for other countries like Burma for example.

      I live in Chiang Mai. This is a very civilized place with everything you could ever need. I can get excellent dental work done for very cheap prices compared to western countries, and I have personally never seen crime or been a victim of it. Actually one of the big reasons for many expats to live in Thailand is that you don’t have to be afraid of violent crime here like in many Latin American countries for example. I can walk around at 3 am and nothing will happen to me. Try that in some western cities and you will be sorry.

      I do agree that the issues which you brought up are real and do exist. However to be fair we have to compare Thailand with similar countries and not with western countries. Sure, Thailand has a ways to go – it is a developing nation. I just wanted to offer some perspective and bring out some good points which do exist here as well.

      Thanks for your contribution. Different viewpoints are appreciated!

      Reply
      • SHAMA,

        Although our perspectives may differ, I honor your viewpoint. One thing we do have in common is that we are both in relationships with “good” Thai women. Good luck and best wishes……….

        Reply
        • That’s a big one right there. We are some of the lucky ones. Many are not as fortunate, as you pointed out quite correctly. Best wishes to both of you as well!

      • I fully agree with all the counter points you have raised against JSH’s critiques. Sure, he/she is correct in many ways but things do need to be put into perspective, which I am able to do now after understanding the reality of life in Thailand vs. the west. Many westerners look at life in the west through rose-eyed glasses and therefore fail to realize that life in the west is becoming increasingly difficult, poverty is increasing, the cost of living is sky rocketing, jobs, freedom and liberty are disappearing fast.

        Thailand offers a refreshing contrast to all of these very real challenges. For starters, you still have a large amount of freedom in Thailand unimaginable in the west these days. You can drive a car or motorcycle without having to worry about being fined for driving over the speed limit in most cases (speed cameras are still very rare). Thais can sell things on the streets in most places and be left alone. Selling anything on the streets in a western country is highly illegal and will subject you to immediate arrest from the authorities.

        Thais on the whole are not poor. There are around 15 million cars for a population of around 68 million people. This equates to around 220 cars per 1000 people. If Thailand was “poor” like many misinformed westerners who place the world into 2 simple categories of “developed” and “developing” and assume all the developed countries are equally developed, while all the developing ones were equally underdeveloped, then Thailand should be as poor as the DR Congo, which has maybe 10 cars per 1000 people. However, with almost one in four Thais owning a car and growing fast, despite the fact Thai car prices are actually higher than in most western countries indicates to me that Thailand has a large middle class and is far from poor.

        Similarly, nearly all Thais have smart phones and millions of Thais travel abroad annually, including over 1 million to Japan last year alone. Millions of Thais live in reasonably nice suburban houses with 3-4 bedrooms (or more) and a nice garden for planting crops. Most uninformed westerners have this strange notion that slums and crushing poverty characterize Thailand (because it’s a “developing” country) yet in reality, it’s countries like Bangladesh, India, Pakistan etc. where this applies not Thailand. Thailand is also WAY more advanced than neighboring Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar in terms of infrastructure and the wealth of it’s population.

        The country’s infrastructure is actually not bad even by international standards. Consider the amazing speed at which roads are being improved; in some western countries like the USA road improvements and expansion has basically stopped but in Thailand countless roads are being expanded from 2 to 4 or from 4 to 6 lanes and 3 expressways, a number of urban skytrain lines in Bangkok and a high speed rail system are all under construction.

        Reply
        • You are right. Recently my wife and I went on an extended road trip in southern Thailand, and we were amazed at how good the roads are. There are new roads being built everywhere, and older roads are being repaved everywhere. The driving infrastructure in Thailand is really very good.

          And this myth that most Thais are poor is quite a fairytale, as you pointed out. Just look at all the brand new cars in the cities. There are tons of expensive SUVs and even in the villages there are plenty of late-model pick up trucks.

          There really are no slums in Thailand, and practically nobody is starving. There are lots of Thais who are traveling and are well-off. The one thing that bugs me is that in many places like attractions and national parks, they want me to pay 4 to 10 times as much as the Thais have to pay, even if most Thais who visit such attractions are solidly middle class and not poor at all.

  3. While there is much good in thailand, this attitude is definitely a problem to efficient and happy living. I have a thai wife. I invested in a thai business. When I found there was a person that had been stealing from me for several months, the response was that they needed the money, so apparently that made it OK. The person didn’t tell me about taking the money because they believed “I would be unhappy about it” and maybe be mad. Of course that is true, I was very unhappy about it. I am more unhappy that there is an attitude that stealing is OK generally or at least reporting or admitting to theft is not important enough to overcome the fact that it would make me unhappy to know about it. Why does this excuse seem too facile ? It works with any wrongdoing.

    Reply
    • Unfortunately the Thai attitude about ‘the truth’ does lend itself to abuse, like you found out in your experience. And it makes it very hard for westerners to deal with Thais when you are involved in business here. You can’t pin a Thai down about the truth since there is no real definition for it in this country.

      Of course lying, stealing and cheating are popular games all over the world, not just in Thailand, but it does make it more difficult if the “truth” is a very vague concept in the first place.
      Well, there are lots of great aspects when it comes to being in Thailand, but some things can be quite challenging here, and that’s definitely one of them.

      Reply
      • Lying and stealing are definitively everywhere, but the problem for me is that in the states it would be possible to just say don’t steal from me and don’t lie to me. This is implied in any relationship. The thai attitude here seems to be very anti buddist ironically. I think budda would say you should speak the truth. You and others should learn to accept the truth abut everything and not be offended or overly upset by it by it in the big picture of life. The opposite would be to intentionally not speak useful and important truths that are causing damage on the assumption that others will be offended by it and not be able to accept it in a buddist way.

        Reply
        • This is one of those areas which can only be described as a culture clash. Westerners will never be able to relate to the Thai way of thinking in this regard, and the Thais will never be able to handle our straightforward way of dealing with this issue. For me, as someone who lives in Thailand, I have no choice but to just accept that this is how it is here. If a Thai would come to the US, we could press the issue and demand more ‘honesty’ according to our way of thinking, but in Thailand this simply isn’t going to work.

  4. Thanks for a interesting and informative article, what you’re saying about saving face deflects blame and responsibility on many occasions … I had one such recently, we were out when I got a call from my landlady who asked me, very politely and calmly, if I could go and see what was happening with her house, as it was on fire…. Needless, to say, we returned home as soon as possible, to find that there had been a small electrical fire in the attic, which because the house was all concrete, tiles and steel, didn’t escalate..
    We were immediately blamed, or implicated, by the builder, for causing it by overloading the system, which of course was rubbish, as we weren’t even there and my Thai wife is anal about removing plugs and turning off things.
    Any rate, we spoke at length to the landlady, and she said what I thought happened, initially I knew it was shoddy electrical work, and wanted to tell her that for her insurance, but my wife shook her head and told me to tell her I didn’t know, maybe a animal was chewing the wires…
    So, the landlady, electrician and the builder all came to agreement that it was a animal that caused to fire and they’d sort out who pays what… Everyone saved face, and I was absolved, possibly because my wife is Thai and as she works in insurance, knew how to deal with the situation.
    Had I been a single farang living here, the conclusion may have been very different, I always get the sense here that being farang, you’re responsible when something happens, deflection of someone else’s’ misfortune …
    I was walking one day and a lady with a heavily overloaded motorbike crashed on the wet road, I went to help her and sort her out, and five minutes later was blamed for causing the accident by the police… Luckily, a couple of young Thai guys helped me out there, but rather than find a cause for a accident, blame was shifted to me, to avoid loss of face to the lady who clearly had a overloaded motorbike and was incapable of handling it…. Or maybe have to bribe my way out of it, I dunno, either way, it was disturbing…
    I love Thailand and most of the people, gradually my thinking is shifting to their mindset, but as westerners we have that nagging built in sense of values and judgements that can never be fully erased, and I prefer to have those values than not…

    Reply
    • Steve, I agree with you. I also have been in Thailand long enough to understand how the Thais think, but my western way of thinking will always remain with me and is my preferred version as well. It can be a strange feeling, having one foot in both worlds, so to say.

      Reply
  5. Really interesting read. I don’t live in Thailand but visit often and am aware of this culture as you say, either we except it or we do not and go elsewhere. I suspect I would find it far more difficult were my 2 trips a year turned into full time however.

    Reply
  6. This mentality is causing me all sorts of greif in my marraige. I occuse my thai wife all the time of lying to me. Mostly trivial things and i do constantly accuse her of lying. Im guessing thats why the marraige is on the rocks essentially. It makes me look back and wonder what were the truthful things in our past? I aggree thailand is not progressing because of this mentality. Yes they have modern stuff there now but that is largely due to western investments and technology.

    Reply
  7. How Can we correct a losing face issue?

    I’ve created two, against my beautiful caring Thai wife.

    She us totally innocent, she has done absolutely nothing wrong.

    And the parties still interact with me, but ignore my wife. One is a cousin living next door.

    Our 9 year old daughter sees the other two parties disdain, and hate towards her mom, and I want to fix it, but I don’t know how.

    By the way the two losing face issues were not vengeful in anyway. Just life things that caused unintentional embarrassing consequential situations. Leaving us stuck.

    I might add, in both cases, it is the wives in very unhappy, terrible relationships.

    Our 12 year marriage, might be causing a lot of envy or jeolousness. IDK??

    HELP????
    Jerry

    Reply
    • Losing face can stay in people’s memories for a long time in Thailand. There is no real way to fix it. Best is to smile, offer a compliment and act respectfully. Even a little flattery might work.

      Reply
  8. I think the US is somewhat unique in how highly we regard telling the truth and how much we revile lying. My guess is that it stems from our pioneer and immigrant ancestors who mostly had to fend for themselves and learn to value independence. A society of independent people who constantly lie to each other can never survive. We rely on communicating facts and truths quckly to one another because we don’t have the benefit of constant contact with likeminded communities of people. Every personal exchange is valuable because information is our currency. By contrast, in closed and close-knit societies like most Asian countries, there is a high level of context that exists even before any two people meet. Most people already know each other or at least can guess at the other’s background and motivation simply by looking at them. So there is no need to catch anyone up to speed. Also in a tight and crowded society, saving face and ensuring harmony is much more important than simply making everyone aware of facts or truths. Thanks for the interesting discussion.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your input. You are correct, there is more of a context or cultural framework in Asian societies compared to the US.

      Reply
  9. I live and work in thailand since 1997. The whole lying thing is utter bullshit. The thai i know don’t want to be lied to and dislike white lies. The uneducated people are kept ignorant with bullshit like grenjai because the elite wants it that way. Imagine you are NOT sick but you call in sick and everybody knows you are not sick? Do you really think your employer will cover that with the holy face/greng jai thing? Thais need to wake up and deal with reality: lying causes more problems then it solves. The thai nature rejects responsibility because making errors, from little errors to major errors with dosens of dead people (eg. Daily road carnage) implies “losing face”. Busdriver causes accident while speeding. “The brakes failed” is the usual excuse or if we are REALLY lucky “it was a ghost”, the latter being another classic excuse. Don’t get me wrong. This is no thai bashing. I live here, love it here, am succesful but NO LYING on my premises nor business. The staff know. No excuses. No hocus pocus. Yes or no. And if they dont know: i dont know. Period. The lack of failing ie. being told you are incorrect and then being CORRECTED is the basis of my credo: live and learn. Peace from LOS!

    Reply
    • It’s good to hear that you have managed to set up an environment where things are done in an honest and straightforward way. This definitely makes life easier.

      Reply
  10. I have a Thai women staying as a tenant here in Melbourne Australia at my place, this is the third one, in the past few years. All three do not have an honest bone in their body. The type of lies and the sheer number of them is breathtaking. All three are into scamming men with multiple men on the go. They are looking for an Aussie sucker to get their P.R.

    She tried to pretend she was single to me, I am not interested anyhow. She is way to thin, immature and entailed for me. I find the perfect women act she puts on creepy and fake.

    Only reason why she fessed up to having a BF was because he has knocking on the front door at 12:30 at night and they were arguing. She claims the guy is a 37yo mech engineer but he looks alot older. She was going to play single, how ridicules.

    As far as she is concerned I have not seen him. The only reason I mentioned him to her was because I forgot to mention that I prefer that myself and Tenants don’t bring home people overnight.

    The other night she told me she was going to the gym, she left at 06:00pm she arrive home at 02:00am. I guess it is none of my business, but I had to make it my business as she had designs on me. I believe I have the right to assess the character of the people I am living with.

    Anyhow she has promised to leave her man/men outside of the property so I am happy with that.

    The Thai girl before this one a few years back was a complete whore. Even had guys over. Her bedroom is next to mine! She also used to work at a Thai massage place and at the end of her shift and I quote her boss “she has a different guy waiting for her every night after her shift”.

    No more Thai female tenants after this one. Way to much dishonesty and drama. Complication and hassle in life that it is not required.

    The current Thai girl I don’t even know her real name or her age. She calls herself Meow but that is not the name on her passport, she flashed her passport at VICROADS.

    Lying by omission is her modus-operand.

    Reply
    • It is unfortunate, but a fact, that quite a few Thai women export some less savory traits to other countries. This has contributed to a somewhat seedy reputation of Thai women in some parts of the world. Of course they are not all like that, but enough of them are, in order to negatively influence the perception of them in some countries. Thai Massage often goes together with other non-massage services.

      I know many good, honest Thai women, and I am married to one of them. But I also have heard a lot of stories from the other end of the spectrum.

      Reply
  11. Your article describes it all perfectly as it is. I accept this in daily life when dealing with Thais on the streets but I certainly do not accept it within my house or business.

    It is the entire reason for all the misery and failure in Thailand, generally the Thais that are better off do not like this mentality either, at least that are my experiences.

    Reply
    • I agree that there are some Thais, especially those with better education and those who have traveled outside of Thailand, who are more straightforward and easier to deal with.

      Reply

Leave a Comment