Culture Profile: Thailand

Chris Flanders (Ph.D. Fuller) is Director of the Halbert Institute of Missions at Abilene Christian University. He lived 11 years in Thailand doing church planting, and has published About Face. 

What does honor & shame look like in your context? 

074432_120323120026Honor/shame is like gravity. It is everywhere, it is powerful, it is always at work, and those who have grown up with it do not give it much conscious thought… until someone’s ego falls splat on the sidewalk. Thai social psychologist Dr. Suntaree Komin contends face-related concerns form the core of Thai culture and personality, ranking the issue of face as primary among the ten most central Thai cultural values. Indeed, so central was this preeminent concern for face that nine of the remaining ten most basic cultural values all functioned as mechanisms to uphold and maintain the Thai face. In other words, if we do not understand the dynamics of face and face-loss, we cannot properly understand Thai culture or Thai people. Period.

 Honor/face related concerns undergird most interaction and conversations. Linguistically, it is impossibly in the Thai language to not comment on someone’s status, making honor/shame statements. The Thai pronominal system is honor-laden, requiring speakers to select among various layers of personal pronouns. Each selection among the multiple pronoun choices has honor implications, so that it is literally impossible to speak to another person or audience without making an honor claim about both oneself and the audience. These choices imply who you think you are in terms of the audience and how much respect/honor you are prepared to grant to your audience, whether a single person or a group.

What are 2-3 key words in the local language people use to communicate honor-shame, and what is their meaning?

“Face” is surely the most common way of speaking about honor, but daily Thai language is saturated with dozens of other terms. Well over half of men’s names in Thailand contain a word related to honor: ศักดิ์ dignity, ศรี/ สิริ glory, เกียรติ honor, สม worthy, คุณ merit , ยศ rank, ประเสริฐ อดุลย์ เด่น เลิศ excellent/superb, ภูมิ pride, กิตติ fame, นิยม admired, etc.

 When you took on behalf of Thai culture, how did it score? 

8% guilt; 60% shame; 32% fear.

The average of 35 results from Thailand were 11% guilt; 60% shame; 29% fear.

A good story?

 My colleague missionary Sean was working with a group of Thai church leaders soon after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York. A Thai newspaper published a photo of American president George Bush posing with what the Thai leaders and the missionary concluded was a somewhat macho look. One of the leaders remarked, “Complete broken face,” referring to Bush’s (and America’s) wounded honor from the attacks. The others leaders concurred and what followed was a discussion on how Bush was acting to save the broken face of the American people. This interpretation was counterintuitive to Sean (and would have been to me as well!) who would have anticipated other concerns (e.g., the need for justice, compassion, national safety) to be part of Bush’s rationale for war. Yet, for this group of Thai Christian leaders, face-related concerns, correct or not, were the natural impulse for viewing the situation.

In talking about upkeep of a local road, several Thais noted that they would be ashamed if the king came and saw that it was unsightly. These two anecdotes point to how basic honor/face and avoiding shame is for the ways most Thais view the world.

In your ministry, what are some ways you have attempted to address honor and shame biblically and redemptively? 

It is impossible to overestimate the power of proper linguistic and social forms of honoring Thai people. In Thailand, a good or ethical person always attends to the face needs and proper honoring of others. When you run into a conflict, you must first ask, “Is a loss of face or failure to deliver respect involved?” Speaking of sin, atonement, and salvation in the “key of honor” became a critical component in my ministry “toolkit” as I spoke about the work of Christ and the nature of personal and corporate salvation. I have also found that many were impressed with the compassion and goodness of a God (theologically) and of Jesus (in the gospels) who upheld others’ face and face needs, that is, a God who restores our full honor as people worthy of relationship and God’s goodness.

What one advice (related to HS) would you give to newcomers in your context to help them be more fruitful in ministry? (30-50 words)

 As a matter of ministry effectiveness, ask Thai friends to help you learn and understand terms, idioms, and proverbs that deal specifically with the language of face, honor, and shame. Immerse yourself in this world and your will understand Thai people and culture in new and powerful ways.


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