Why do Thais Lie so Much?

Published: 20th August 2007Author: Know Phuket

There is an old joke in Thailand that ex-pats often repeat. "How do you tell when a Thai is lying?" Answer - "His lips are moving."

Despite what many westerners believe, lying is considered to be a bad thing in Thailand. Yet the general impression amongst westerners is that lying and corruption are rampant in Thai society. From the top to the bottom we see examples of Thais lying.

Part of the problem is that it is the top and the bottom of Thai society that many westerners see the most. We see the top of Thai society in the news and there are endless stories of political corruption and bribery. We see the bottom of Thai society in the tourist bars that many westerners frequent and we see endless rip offs perpetrated by the bar girls and other assorted scam masters.

Of course, we are seeing the worst of Thai society. Many of the people at the top such as politicians and businessmen have achieved their success through cheating and bribery. That is often what it takes to succeed. Indeed, it seems that for many would be politicians, the main aim of getting elected is to profit from the opportunities that their position of power will afford them. They invest money to buy votes in the expectation of making more money once they have been elected.

However, although corruption and bribery are plainly widespread in Thai politics, the fact that we see many stories about it in the news and even an occasional prosecution show that it is not actually condoned by the system. It is just a long and painful path to eradicate corruption from a system that is riddled with it. There are honest Thai politicians. There are, really.

As for the bottom end of Thai society. Well the lack of honesty from bar girls and other scam masters in the tourist trade is well documented. There is no need to rehash the old stories here. But really, what would anyone expect from these people. It is the bottom rung of Thai society and the very nature of their business almost demands dishonesty. Even among this underclass, you will meet honest Thais.

We shouldn't judge all Thais from the few that we see from our first encounters in Thailand. They do not represent a broad cross section of Thai society. Once you have spent a bit more time in Thailand and delved a little deeper you start to meet more typical Thai people. The sort of people who work in shops and offices, raise a family, buy a house and struggle to make the mortgage payments. There is a whole strata of Thai people trying to make an honest living the old-fashioned way. And most of them are honest people.

I would like to say they are all honest but of course that is not true. I would like to say that no more of them lie than westerners but I am not sure that is true either. For while I say most of them are honest, I still have to admit that I notice quite a few who are not. The old joke about how do you tell if a Thai is lying may be unfair but there does seem to be more dishonesty in Thailand than in the west.

A great deal of this can be attributed to the very different economic situation in Thailand. When it is so much more difficult to make money honestly then of course more people will be tempted to try dishonest means. It is no coincidence that crime rates in the west are higher in poor districts or that crime increases during recession.

However, a lot of the lying I notice is not even about personal gain. It is often small lies that are only designed to make the teller look good. It is the old face issue again. And the strange thing is it is not really the lying that is considered bad, it is being caught. Thais may tell a lie to improve their face but if they were caught lying then this would cause a tremendous loss of face.

And here is the complicated bit. If you catch a Thai lying and confront them with it, they will think you are the one acting badly. For while their lie was undiscovered there was no harm but once you bring it out in the open you make them look bad and lose face. You should not make other people lose face so you are the one who is in the wrong. How is that for a piece of reverse logic? So generally, when you notice a Thai lying you should just ignore it.

A while ago my wife and I met a Thai woman who had an American fiancé. They had met through an introductions agency and she was a reasonably educated young woman. She started telling us all the things that this American guy was doing for her. They were buying a 2 million baht yacht and an 8 million baht house. They were going for holidays around the world. She had even printed joint business cards with a picture of the boat.

A couple of days later I met this American guy. We chatted and I asked him how his property purchase was going. He told me they were buying a one bedroom apartment. I said it must be exceptionally nice to be worth 8 million baht. He told me it was 900,000 baht. I asked him about the yacht. He told me they were not buying a yacht and he had no idea why his fiancé had put one on their joint business card.

Her lies were harmless enough. They were only meant to improve her image and self importance. Still I think in the west people would call you up for telling such absurd tales. When I told my wife about it she just laughed and said we should let this woman tell her stories. If we told her we knew she way lying it would only embarrass her and make her feel bad. There was no need to hurt this woman so whenever we met her we patiently listened to her extravagant tales and expressed our envy that her fiancé valued her so highly.

This is not an isolated case. I often find myself listening to Thais and thinking that they are talking nonsense. The strange thing is when I mention it to my wife or other Thai friends they are all fully aware that the person was lying. As long as the lies are harmless they do not worry about them.

Maybe this is part of the reason why lying does seem to be more common in Thailand. It simply isn't frowned upon in quite the same way as in the west. They do believe lying is bad but if no harm is done then it is not important.

It is a more complicated issue than the simple western view that lying is wrong. Being caught lying is bad because you are made to look bad. Getting away with a lie may in some circles be seen as clever because you have fooled someone. Most Thais agree that the deposed Prime Minister Thaksin abused his position for personal gain. However there are many who think that doesn't matter because they liked the way he did his job. Some even think his abuse of power was a sign of cleverness that would also mean he was clever at running the country.

Most Thais think lying is wrong and many are honest people. It is just not the most important issue to them. They will forgive lies from others if they think there are more important factors to consider.


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