It's Not My Fault

June 25, 2001

Being raised with four siblings sometimes made it easy to stay out of trouble. If anything got broken and we were asked to name the responsible party we would all state, “Not me.” ‘Not Me’ became the sixth child. ‘Not me’ also lives in Thailand. He is omnipotent and omnipresent. Contrary to popular belief, in Thailand accountability is a four-letter word. Or, let’s make it five instead. N-O-T M-E!

In Thailand no matter what goes wrong most of the time no one will step up to take the blame. If people are late to work, they tend not to admit that they overslept. They prefer to blame the traffic. When a bus or truck driver high on amphetamines has an accident killing all passengers, he or she usually flees the scene.

More than likely no one will step up and say, “Sorry. I really messed up.” If you choose to make the foolish decision of truly trying to get to the bottom of something, get ready for several twists and spins. The world can be one big scapegoat filled with250601k1.jpg half-truths, creative yarn spinning or the patter of feet as someone leaves the scene.

‘Not me’ has a nickname: saving face. In the majority of situations if someone really messes up, even when everyone is aware of it, no one will say anything. This keeps the incompetent person from looking bad. It ‘saves their face’, meaning their public image is somehow preserved although everyone is well aware of the blunder they have made. It also serves to avoid conflict.

Thais usually dislike conflict of any kind (except sometimes when they are driving.) They try to diffuse tension (except sometimes when they have been drinking whisky.) The preferred solution in most negative situations is to simply ignore it or transfer the conflict to an inanimate object. This is a more passive response than most are used to. In the West we have come to rely on and expect finger pointing, even if it involves pointing at ourselves.

In Thailand when someone really needs to be told that250601k2.jpg they completely biffed it, the polite protocol is to quietly take them aside. Only under four-eyes should the real situation and blunder be brought out into the open. To do this in public would be a major faux pas and cause a major loss of face. Incompetence, no matter how great or small, is best addressed behind closed doors in a whisper.

The general rule is to never contradict or disagree with someone in public regardless of how justified you might be. A fitting example of this happened to me last week. I had gotten several negatives enlarged at a local photo shop. All of them looked fine except one. It was massively overdeveloped making the reds look tan so I brought it back. The clerk told me, “You must leave the original picture as an example to get good colour.” (There is no original to refer to when developing film the first time around, is there?)

She could not admit doing a bad job or she would lose face. I could not yell at her or make a fuss about it or I250601k3.jpg would lose face. Instead I went back home, got my original, and left it there so they could correctly reprint it. Thus everyone kept his or her face.

Saving face is all well and good until it comes down to the big issues. If someone gets killed in an industrial accident, fire exit doors are locked at a department store and hundreds of people perish, or if you fall down one of the many open manholes in Bangkok, too bad. There is only ‘Not Me’ to sue. On top of that, ‘Not Me’ has a plethora of possible hiding places within the massive bureaucratic system of Thailand. ‘Not Me’ does not hand out millions of dollars, period.

Thailand has a reputation for corruption and embezzlement. When this happens there is usually some commotion in the papers for a few days. Then the guilty party gets quietly transferred to a new department or job. It seems that Thai people are not very good at holding a grudge (at least on the outside) even if they have managed to track down ‘Not Me’ for once. In fact, most people (Thai and westerner alike) pretty much give up on finding ‘Not Me’ after a while. It’s just not worth the hassle.

A warehouse of military explosives near Don Muang International Airport accidentally blew up a few months ago. It just got too hot in there and BAH-BOOM! The incident was reported as being caused by soaring temperatures. No names were given and no improper storage techniques were cited.

I guess I have been living in Thailand for too long. I read the news articles and thought to myself, “Darn sun” while ‘Not Me’ stood off in the distance chuckling and relishing in the sweet victory of yet another caper.

Back to the table of contents...