Expat: You may laugh or smile at this report, but in Thailand, smiles are deadly serious in the Land of Smiles, and new expats need to start getting the messages quickly.
In America, a smile may not be so important. Americans smile when they are very happy, and seldom smile for any other reason. In Thailand, the Land of Smiles, a smile is an extremely important form of communication. A smile has much more meaning than in the West, and it takes some time for one to be able to interpret them. In this report, I will try to give visitors and new expats some things to be aware of about Thai smiles, and a deeper glimpse into the deep seated customs of the Kingdom. Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles because as you meet Thai people, you see a Thai smile wherever you go. Thais smile when they are happy, they also smile when they are feeling a variety of negative emotions such as embarrassment, regret, confusion and even anger. Understanding that Thais place a high value on avoiding conflict and maintaining social harmony and you’ll begin to understand the reason why Thai’s smile even in negative situations.
The “Greeting” smile – This will have a polite smile at you when they want to greet you instead of saying hello. When you see a pretty girl smile at you, it does not always mean that she is interested in you but sometimes she just wants to say hello.
The “Nervous” smile – When Thais become nervous, this smile is to make them feel better.
The “I’m sorry for the mistake” smile – This is commonly seen in restaurants or shops where a frustrated tourist may complain about the order only to get a smile in return from the server. Often this will make the customer more frustrated and angry as their perception is the server finds their frustration funny when really the Thai person has intended to apologize with their smile. Don’t expect the Thai server to apologize with words. That’s a Western Concept. The proper way for the frustrated farang customer to handle this situation is for the customer to smile, and say Mai Pen Rai (It’s OK, it does not matter). The problem may not get fixed, but no one should get stressed about it. The Thai feels guilty for the mistake, and in a sense is seeking your forgiveness.
The “Encouraging” smile – When you did something silly or made a mistake and you see Thai people smile or even laugh, don’t get angry. Sometimes they did not mean to make fun at you, they just try to make you feel better or encourage you to forget that embarrassing situation.
Another very common smile is the “I don’t understand what you’re talking about” smile. Thais are not of the character to often admit they don’t understand you. Thais do not want to lose face in any way. So when you ask for something specific in a shop, you could get this smile when they simply don’t understand you. It is important for a farang to interpret this smile and not get frustrated. The farang should simply smile back, and repeat the request with easier words spoken slowly. Related to this is the “I don’t know what to say” smile, when the Thai person does not have the English skills to reply to the request.
Know that it is important for the farang to relax and smile a lot. While Thailand has a reputation as the Land of Smiles, Thai people believe Western people never smile. A person that smiles often or most ofl the time is highly regarded in Thailand. You have to constantly remind yourself to do this, as it is probably not natural for you to do this.
When there is a disagreement, and the Thai does not want to have an argument about it (which is most of the time), you are likely to see the “Whatever you say” smile. This one is fairly easy to spot, and it means you should smile back to them and step away from the problem. Avoid conflict. You will not win.
The “I’m so embarrassed I want to disappear” smile – This smile will often appear as the result of a foreigners insulting tirade following the “I’m sorry for the mistake” smile. Of course it only serves to further enrage the farang and if they somehow don’t realize what is happening and calm down can be followed by the “I’m so mad I can break your neck” smile. This is not a good position for the farang, and can actually be dangerous. If this happens, it is best for the farang to leave the situation quickly. Understand that if the line is crossed to where the Thai will become enraged, you can expect he will get immediate support from all other Thais in the area. The farang will be on the losing end.
The Thai Smile (in Thai, Yim = smile):
1. ‘Yim thang nam taa: I’m so happy I’m crying smile.
2. ‘Yim thak thaai’: Polite smile for someone you barely know.
3. ‘Yim cheun chom’: The admiring/admiration smile.
4. ‘Fuen Yim’: The rigid smile, furthermore known as the “I should laugh at the joke although it’s not funny” Smile.
5. ‘Yim mee lessanai’: Masking something immoral in your mind Smile.
6. ‘Yim yaw’: The mockery or; told you so smile.
7. ‘Yim yae-yae’: I know things look pretty bad, but there is no point in crying over spilt milk; smile.
8. ‘Yim sao’: The sad smile.
9. ‘Yim haeng’: The dry smile. “I know I owe you money, but I don’t have it” smile.
10. ‘Yim thak thaan’: I disagree with you smile. Also known as the: You can go ahead and propose it but your idea’s no good” smile.
11. ‘Yim cheua-cheuan’: I am the winner smile, usually given to a losing competitor.
12. ‘Yim soo’: smiling in the face of an impossible struggle smile.
13. ‘Yim mai awk’: The I’m trying to smile but can’t smile Smile.
Welcome to Thailand, the Land of Smiles
Here are some of the Rules for Westerners in Thailand that must be learned:
The Thais prize gentleness, politeness and consideration. Aggressive, loud and obnoxious behavior is frowned upon, as is too much physical contact and exposing too much skin. They also place high importance on their religion and the monarchy, so cracking jokes about these two revered institutions will definitely earn the “I’m so mad I can break your neck” smile.
- Do not touch anybody’s head, as the head is considered the cleanest and holiest body part.
- The feet are seen as the lowest and dirtiest body part, therefore one should not raise their feet at any time.
- Take off shoes when entering a Thai house so the floors stay clean.
- Women should not touch monks (because the monks have taken celibacy vows).
- Dress modestly when entering temples (this means no shorts or sleeveless tops).
- Public displays of affection makes the locals very uncomfortable, so please enjoy the activity in private.
- Ask permission before snapping pictures in temples.
- It is customary to offer a seat in public transportation to seniors, pregnant women and monks.
And lastly, when a problem arises, keep a cool head, do not raise the voice and avoid gesturing wildly. Oh, and smile!
Here is one of the Great Secrets why Thai people are able to smile so much (hint – it’s a potato chip)