Asia is unlike Europe and the US in many ways. This may seem like an obvious statement, but it’s important to educate ourselves on how behaviour needs to change in different cultures, so as not to offend locals.
It might be normal to argue with voice raised in the western world, or indeed, to show displeasure by speaking loudly and angrily to a staff member when things aren’t going the way you expected. Despite this fully sucking if you’re the member of staff, anywhere in the world, it happens fairly regularly in western countries and isn’t usually flinched at.
However, in Asia, saving face is a huge part of everyday culture. By raising your voice and showing displeasure in this way, you are causing extreme embarrassment both to the receiver, and to yourself. In fact, it can even cause an outcome that you might not expect – agression, and in some cases, violence. You might deem this as an over-the-top response – but saving face is extremely important and ignoring this can result in not only embarrassment, but can put you in a very difficult situation.
Here’s an example that we witnessed the other day:
We jumped into the back of a songthaew in the middle of what seemed to be an argument. Two European couples were arguing with two drivers – they did not want to pay the money for the trip into the town centre up front. A songthaew is like a bus, and in England you pay for buses before you get on, so we were happy to pay. We did so. The other couples were rude to us about this – saying it was ‘so toursity’ – and we were surprised at their reaction. The tones and levels of their voices used to the drivers were rude, and the situation didn’t warrant it. Perhaps they didn’t realise that they were being impolite, but the bus drivers were getting visibly distressed – and in a country like Laos, where the people are friendly, polite and avoid conflict, reacting to a normal request in this way is ignoring the cultural importance that they place on ‘saving face’.
Once we arrived to the centre we left the group immediately, but since then have discussed why this happened. It’s all down to education. When you arrive in a country, do the research on the cultural norms. You’ll get the best experience by adhering to them and being polite. As the old saying goes –
You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.