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.
The 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 firstname.lastname@example.org