Among major Asian cultures, the notion of face (nha in Thai) and saving face (raksa nha) is a very sensitive subject. For some, their “face” is paramount, something never to be messed with. As a Thai custom, since we all have a face, whether it be a transparent one or a public persona that one projects, we should try to keep each other’s face and reputation intact and all things in harmony.
Most Thais can get easily embarrassed. We live in a society with a happy-go-lucky characteristic. We tend to smile and to make fun or joke about things all the time. Our sense of humour and joie-de-vivre, sanuk, has never left us even though we have gone through thick and thin during these difficult times. To avoid conflicts and confrontations and to maintain good relationships, making someone publicly embarrassed – sia nha or nha dtaek – to lose or break someone’s face in Thai, is not a common thing unless it is necessary.
Losing face can be as insignificant as khaiy nha – selling face – or as tremendous as nha dtaek – breaking face. Mishaps, faux pas, or simple slip-ups can cause embarrassment or unease, while indiscretion, disclosure of secrets, or downright criticism can lead to humiliation and disgrace. One should have some safeguards for these challenging social situations.
So, in our society, we can have different personae and guises. This is what the Thais call saum hua Khon or wearing a Khon mask. Khon comes in various styles of classical mask dances in which the dancers, especially the demons and the simians, wear masks to assume a role. Even Thosakan (10-faced demon or Ravana from Ramayana) has more than one mask. Besides the normal green mask, he would wear a gold one to court and charm Sita (Rama’s wife). So let alone a demon, a human wears more masks than a PR company can keep track.
I have a personal example that saving and losing face can be a double-edged sword. A friend of ours did something seriously wrong to our group. Then he was caught red-handed with witnesses and evidences but denied responsibility. One of our mutual friends decided to chastise him face-to-face but the malefactor still kept his face without coming clean. He denied his offences and insisted it was all misunderstood. He could either own up to his faults or apologise to everyone. But he still refused. So this is where some of my friends and I drew the line. His face was shattered but his skin is tougher than a rhinoceros hide. This behaviour is called nha daan (tough-faced).
I let things cool off for a while and waited my turn to reprimand him. I chose the face-off du jour, the social network. I posted a story about what happened without naming the culprit but most of our close friends would know the situation. Some agreed to what I did while some took a different side. I made the rogue lose face and, in return, I also lost mine. I became the villain because some friends thought that I was too harsh and the wrongdoer shouldn’t have been publicly exposed like that. So how do we go on pretending that nothing had happened? How many more masks do we put on?
Consequentially, the offender felt ashamed but his ego or his face was too big to face the truth. Lies and white lies get told every second just to save someone’s face and feelings. Aren’t we strong enough to handle the truth? Where has honesty and integrity gone? If this friend still had any dignity and self-respect to admit his guilt, then I would be more forgiving. If not, he got what he deserves. Face is about Karma after all. Casting the masks aside, if one wears one’s face well, a nice reflection will shine through.
Buddhism encourages people to be truthful and to to value substance rather than superficial things. The religion does not abide face-saving but wakes us up to reality, our true nature. Facing the truth shows acute selfawareness. It results in good self-esteem, respect, and honour. Personae and masks are illusions that one builds as one’s façade. After all, a mirror has two faces. Why not trying to look inward and view your true self? Most of us still live with desire and self-interest. Our face has become our image. Visual sense strongly overpowers spiritual mindfulness. In these times, name, fame, and recognition seem to help efface all our sins.
Nonetheless, as Dorothy Parker said: “Beauty is only skin deep and ugly goes clean to the bone.” After an era of excessive face-protecting, we should face forward to the new age of consideration of our true self and not our face.