Larry S. Persons, PhD
People with ‘face’ in Thai society feel a deep sense of worth that woos them to expect special treatment. But Covid-19 doesn’t really care who you are. This nasty villain is upending social rules and changing the way we all live, including people with wealth, status, titles, talent, fame, and good looks.
How is this virus uniquely impacting people with face?
To answer that question, we need to be aware of a complex calculus that determines the worth of every person in this modern kingdom of Thailand. Human value is estimated in five abstract dimensions, each important in its own right: prestige, honor, public acclaim, accumulated goodness, and endogenous worth.
Don’t let that salvo of words scare you away.
We will capture each layer of “face” with a concise definition and then consider how Covid-19 has interrupted the normal rules and habits of gaining and maintaining face.
Prestige, or Nata (หน้าตา)
Meet the ‘bling’ of Thai face. Prestige belongs to people with financial resources. Public displays of wealth are highly convincing for Thais, stirring most onlookers to concede significant social power to the ‘haves’ over the ‘have nots.’ Sadly, money buys respect.
Do not miss that prestige is often cut loose from moral stipulations. Even a nasty, self-centered narcissist will be treated like he’s just wonderful, as long as he has a bigger piece of the pie. This is by far the most superficial way of judging human worth, yet it’s almost impossible to overstate its power. This kind of face is sustained by accruing wealth and continually flaunting it in social space.
People with lots of prestige may have been feeling a tad deflated in the wake of Covid-19. The reasons may surprise you. It’s not like business challenges and financial markets have completely ravaged their pools of wealth. But with luxury malls and high-brow restaurants closed for months on end (and just now opening), this group has simply lacked venues for their public presentations. Social distancing has given them fewer chances to be ‘seen’ in public, leading to fewer hits of dopamine to tell them that they have value.
See, this group sustains its sense of wellbeing through lavish consumption before an audience. Yes, forms of social media offer precious venues for displaying their glamorous lifestyles. But nothing quite does the trick like physical displays of extravagance in public, and those displays have been muted by this crisis.
Honor, or Kiat (เกียรติ)
Honor is the treasure of people with legitimate authority. It trickles down through awards, medals, certificates, and academic degrees, but it absolutely cascades down upon people who achieve title or rank in a hierarchy. (Think leaders in corporations, civil service, politics, the police force, the military, academia, even religious orders.) The higher the position, the more the honor.
Ideally, honor correlates strongly with virtue. Society expects people with legitimate authority to use power in just and principled ways that truly benefit the collective. But in our less-than-perfect world, leaders often lack the personal virtue to match their positions of honor. Justice seems so easily perverted by greed.
How’s life been recently for people with honor? A little tenuous, if not dangerous.
Leaders need others to believe that they know what they’re doing. But this hideous virus can make a fool of almost any leader. The ripple effects are so unpredictable, so lightning quick, so relentless, and so devastating to organizations, communities, and economies that many leaders have lost their swagger. They are coping by ‘holding their cards close to their chests,’ hedging their words, releasing new guidelines and then quickly withdrawing them. It’s immensely more difficult to make it look like you know what you’re doing. And the fear of losing face is palpable.
Consider also that leaders must continually reify their authority through public displays of honor— traveling with an entourage, honorary roles at large public gatherings, photo ops with celebrities, or brief visits to scenes of acute public need. But with Covid-19, many of these venues have all but vanished. It is as though honor itself is in hibernation.
Public Acclaim, or Chuesiang (ชื่อเสียง)
Imagine an aroma that wafts into the nostrils of a large population, creating immediate appetite, interest, even fervor—something capable of powerfully shaping values and driving consumer behaviors. That is the essence of this word, and it is the treasure of a chosen few.
Are you excellent in some way? Well, who knows about that? How big is your stage?
Acclaim comes in two flavors: 1) recognition for sacrificial, meritorious behavior, or 2) adoration for being in some way exceptional (brilliant, talented, gifted, funny, rich, handsome, or beautiful). The first flavor is fairly scarce. The second is pasted everywhere—saturating massive video screens in downtown areas, billboards along highways, flat screens on every BTS, and smart phones in the hands of anyone who still has a pulse.
But Covid-19 has driven those who thrive on public acclaim into the woodwork. They have all but lost their platforms for face presentation. A singer’s concert is cancelled. A footballer’s cleats are hung up. An actor’s movie shoot is put on indefinite hold. A comedian can’t work a live crowd. And all those pretty faces that generate such buzz in public? They don’t look quite so sublime when covered with a mask.
Accumulated Goodness, or Barami (บารมี)
Meet the pinnacle of honor, the most elusive form of Thai face. Accumulated goodness is the treasure of a very small number of leaders who view power as a gift to be used virtuously for the benefit of others. They are known by their humility, their equanimity, and their consistent, underived expressions of kindness and generosity over the span of many, many years. Amazingly, this treasure does not reside in those leaders. It is carried in the hearts of their followers.
This is, by far, the most respected and enduring manifestation of face in Thai society. It can shine brightly long after a leader takes his last breath. The modern standard of this kind of moral strength is the brilliant life of King Rama the 9th, but hundreds (if not thousands) of less heralded leaders in diverse walks of life also choose this enlightened path on a daily basis.
Because accumulated goodness is a highly coveted treasure, leaders with power and money attempt to buy or ‘build’ this form of face through calculated shows of generosity. But, alas, the instant any leader does something good with ulterior motives, with strings attached, he disqualifies himself from achieving what he so deeply desires. Leaders who try to ‘build’ barami will never have barami.
Now, here’s a question for you. Has there ever been a point in our lifetimes when leaders with accumulated goodness were more needed? This virus has devasted the economy, but let’s admit that the people suffering most are the poor and underprivileged who have lost their livelihoods and have no savings to cushion the pain. Now is the time for all people of means—especially extremely wealthy families in the kingdom—to generously provide for the hurting and the disenfranchised, and to do so quietly, with no fanfare, refusing the customary photo-op designed to broadcast their generosity. Or, as Thais say, “pressing gold leaf on the back of an image of the Buddha.”
This crisis is a call for the privileged and the powerful to practice true barami.
Endogenous Worth, or Saksi (ศักดิ์ศรี)
Here is the bedrock of Thai face: the amount of worth every person ascribes to himself or herself. It’s the only kind of face that is a true possession. All others are on loan.
In other words, society entrusts ‘face’ to millions of Thais, but every single one of them is merely a steward, not the owner, of a good thing. They can lose what they have because virtue stands as a scrupulous judge of all who play games of face.
Most people with face tend to tether their saksi to accomplishments in social space, so that if they ever they lose face badly, they subjectively feel the loss of a certain amount of endogenous worth.
But no one takes away your endogenous honor, not unless you capitulate your birthright and give others the power to define you.
At its heart, this is ‘face on the inside,’ the essence of personhood that anchors us with compelling feelings of having inherent worth. It’s all about identity. What defines you? Who defines you? And who are you when you drop all façades and props?
What better time to reconsider these existential questions than during Covid-19, when a crazy virus knocked the wind out of our insatiable consumerism and our confidence that life is going to be okay. Boarded up in our homes, day after day, with waves of bad news and little face-to-face interaction the trusses of life have collapsed, leaving us with a naked, novel thought: “What is left of me?” This question may be terrifying for some. But for others it can lead to the delightful discovery of a wellspring of resiliency and kindness that cannot, and will not, be conquered by any pandemic. Endogenous worth can shine brightly, even in the darkest of hours.
Covid-19 temporarily knocked the ‘moxie’ out of most manifestations of face in Thai society. But it is also shining a radiant light on things that matter most. If we will listen and learn, this unusual hour can teach us wisdom. It reminds us that our identities should never be rooted in something we can lose. Wealth. Power. Fame. We are defined by the level of our inner goodness and our outward generosity.