The Thai Smile


The world always looks brighter from behind a smile

Lanna, the northern part of Thailand, is known as the land of a million rice fields (lan = million, na = rice fields). After you have read this chapter, you may feel you want to call Thailand the land of a million smiles. The Thais, and their neighbours, are often described as inscrutable because the different meanings of their smiles are not easy to understand.

In the West, a smile always indicates pleasure. In Thailand, you cannot make that assumption. The Thai smile can express many emotions, not just that the person is pleased to see you or meet with you. For example, a smile in a club or disco is not necessarily a come-on. Far from it.

Let’s look at the different types of Thai smile before we visit a department store and then a bar where we will meet some Thais who will demonstrate the Thai smile in action.

The Smile Friendly is merely a polite welcoming smile and no more. Enjoying life and having sanuk (fun) are central to being Thai. Why be too serious? This smile says that the person is happy and contented with life.

Smiling comes naturally to Thais; they were born with smiles on their faces. If there is a choice between smiling and not smiling, they will choose smiling every time. They see no reason not to smile. In that sense, the smile is an automatic reflex. They smile whenever they are speaking to you. The Smile Automatic. You should not read as much into it as you would in the West.

If a Thai doesn’t want to do what you ask him, he will smile automatically. It is his natural response. You may have to be less indirect or more persuasive. Be long-winded to avoid coming across as too serious or annoyed. Introduce some friendly humour into the conversation, engage in a little sweet talking pootwan, get him on side, and try again. This time with a smile of your own.

We all smile when we hear a good joke, and the Thais are no exception. They love double-entendres and clever wordplay. Sarcasm escapes them because of their basic polite nature and unwillingness to engage in insults. When you joke with a Thai, you will see The Smile Humourous. Some people, particularly young girls, will put a hand over their lower face in a show of shyness and modesty.

It is not uncommon for motorcyclists to collide on Thai roads. If there is no grave injury or damage, the riders will just get up, brush themselves off, smile, and go on their way. The Smile Mai Pen Rai. It doesn’t really matter. It is not important. The smile defuses any tension in the situation. We might not get angry in the West over a few negligible scratches, but we certainly would not be smiling.

The Thai values his freedom so much that he takes it to extremes. Appointments will often not be kept. Jobs will not be done. They want the freedom to do what they want to do. So they smile.

A police officer fines you for not wearing a seat belt. He smiles and salutes. You smile and pay up. That’s not a happy smile; that’s The Smile Downhearted. For Thais, despondency carries no sense of dejection or despair. As a Westerner, you probably would not see any point in crying over spilled milk after such an incident, but I doubt you’d be very happy about it.

The more you get to know Thais and the more you visit Thailand; the more you will notice that they come across as having enormous outward self-confidence. Thais have big egos. They have a tendency to believe they are always right (like everyone else in the world, of course). Sometimes though it can be an illusion.

An electrician told me there was no need for an earth wire because electricity is different in Thailand. And of course, he smiled The Smile of the All-Knowing.

This smile can come across as patronising and even a little arrogant. Thais take pride in believing that they were never colonised and forced to accept new ideas. This can make their way of thinking appear somewhat inward looking, an inability to think outside the box.

Thais will not usually give a formal apology if they do something wrong or have made a mistake. What you will get is The Smile Apologetic, which you should take as an apology. It is the Thai way to say, “I’m sorry,” so try not to feel insulted and annoyed, as you would if someone gave you such a smile back home. Smile back. If they have made an error, discuss how it can be resolved. Stay calm, keep smiling, and avoid showing anger or raising your voice.

Thais do things slowly; they try to avoid a war of words and will search for compromises. When they make what we may consider an inexcusable gaffe, they will smile. But they won’t want to talk about it and lose face.

Khun Suchart was tired and jet-lagged when he arrived at Terminal 5 at Los Angeles International. He inadvertently picked up the wrong suitcase from the carousel and started walking off with it to the customs desk.

The farang next to him called out, “Hey, you Thai. What are you doing with my suitcase? Can’t you see it has my name on the tag?”

Suchart looked down and saw that, although it was the same brand and colour, it was indeed not his case.

“I don’t know why you’re smiling. It’s not a smiling matter.

A true and characteristic example of how Thais and Westerners see smiles differently. Suchart returned the case but did not say anything. He apologised by smiling. The farang did all the talking.

When a Thai is self-conscious or feels a little nervous, he can use The Smile of Embarrassment as a way of masking his sentiments and real feelings. There will be no conversation when this smile is displayed. He may not know how best to get around the difficulty he believes he is in. He wants to show greng jai and avoid conflict. He needs the situation to go away. It would not be unusual for him to walk off. He may want some time to think things over. He may even change his mind; but he will not do so that quickly. He certainly won’t let you know straight away as that would be a major loss of face.

He will address the problem from a different angle. Thais will sometimes use an intermediary to mediate on their behalf. A close mutual friend may suggest a compromise or solution. Sometimes a monk or the village headman will get drawn in. In the past, many small villages had a cao khote, an adviser on family matters such as marriage disagreements or other personal matters. Petty thefts and land disputes were dealt with by him.

This way of resolving an issue can be a little trying to a farang who is more used to sorting out mix-ups when they occur. Thais frequently complain about how stern and impatient Westerners can be. When you encounter the smile of embarrassment,just smile, deal with it the way they do. Time is not crucial or important to a Thai. While Mexicans embrace the concept of mañana the Thai version has a sense of even less urgency.

You will see The Smile of Misunderstandingwhen a Thai has no clue what you are talking about. Smile back, repeat the question slowly, and wait for an answer. If you still don’t get a reply, ask the question using similar words. Watch whether the body language changes, indicating the person now understands you. People of many nationalities will refuse to admit they don’t understand the foreign language you are speaking. It is not entirely a Thai peculiarity.

When speaking with a Thai, you may observe a pause and then a smile. This is The Smile Encouraging, an invitation to join in the conversation. It happens a lot when one member of a group is perhaps being a little quiet. The smile means, “I am not making a threat” and is intended to win your confidence and put you at ease. Be careful, though, because scammers and confidence tricksters as well as the ordinary honest Thai, may use it. And they will use it to their advantage.

Thais smile with sympathy when they are sad or giving bad news, an almost mechanical response they are taught from a very early age so that they don’t show their feelings publicly. The English have their stiff upper lip; the Thais have The Smile of Sadness. In The End of a Life, we see that smiles do not have the same connotations as in the West. No one in the family was happy that Dta Sompet had died but that didn’t stop anyone from having a smile on his face. The smiling was not disrespectful; it was compassionate.

Smiles are not easy to distinguish. I was told to watch the eyes for a clue for their true meaning. A dullness indicates the smile is not a happy one and may even be a sign of sarcasm. I have found it a useful technique in most but not all circumstances.

This comment, made by a Thai to a farang, was overheard at a Bangkok cremation service.

Why do you look so sad? This is a funeral. You believe he’s gone to a better place, don’t you?

Well, yes, I suppose I do.

Then why are you not smiling?

A different culture; a different attitude.

Being in pain does not suppress the smile. A road accident victim, bleeding profusely, will smile at the ambulance crew when they arrive. The Thai sees no reason to appear sad or unhappy, whatever the circumstances. He is thinking practically. He’s on his way to hospital where he will be taken care of.

It seems contradictory, but Thais can smile when they agree with you and also when they are in disagreement. The Smile Agreeing and The Smile Disagreeing are good examples of how Thais never show their true opinions on a subject. Only the context will provide clues to determine which smile is which in this confusing situation. Thais believe in being jai yen (cool hearted, calm) so that disagreements result in a smile and not outward anger.

Thailand is not just the land of smiles; it is the land of not knowing what is going on in people’s minds. Are they agreeing or disagreeing?

One is reminded of the classic line in the film, The Godfather: “Never let people know what you are thinking.”

Not telling you what is happening is a trait you will quickly notice. Thais don’t like to commit themselves or take responsibility. You can try asking a question framed so that you get an unambiguous answer. You may be lucky, or you may just get the smile.

I’ll come back to fix the washing machine.

Will you come tomorrow?

I’ll come soon



What time? In the morning?

I’ll come soon.

Shall we say 10am tomorrow morning?

Big smile. He may turn up; he may not.

Sometimes the following words seem appropriate even though Joe South was not singing about the Thai:

Never meaning what they say

Never saying what they mean

Making up a completely false story or a white lie to avoid unpleasantness or disappointing you occurs regularly. Smiling, the Thai believes, is better than being completely honest. We find it odd but Thais do this to avoid disagreeing with you (greng jai again) and to remain your friends.

They do not want to argue and are sensitive to criticism and anything considered insulting behaviour. They have been brought up to believe that harmony is to be preferred to clashing with you. Thais may just walk away. Or, you will get either a blank look or the smile of avoiding conflict.

Both mean the same: that getting into a squabble is pointless and completely unproductive. You will need to talk about something else. Avoid disagreements and clashes. This is not comfortable territory for either of you. The Smile of Avoiding Conflict is the device used to avoid quarrels and fights. Shouting or getting violent is very much a last resort for the Thai when a smile fails and it can occur if you try to stand your ground instead of moving on and seeking the harmony that they feel you should be aiming to achieve. The Thai will feel that, as the indirect means of avoiding conflict – with the smile – has failed, he must resort to the fist, the gun, or the knife. It is not easy for the farang to appreciate that this can happen quite regularly with Thais. It comes as a shock when first observed.

Although a Thai will consider making use of a “go-between” to resolve a dispute –the village headman or a monk, for example – that does not mean that he has no sense of individuality or wanting to settle matters by himself. He still has a solid motivation of self-interest and a strong ego that can surpass, when pushed to the limit, his initial instinct to avoid conflict completely and not be vengeful. It took several years for me to begin to understand that Thais have what appears at first sight to be an ambivalent way of thinking through an issue. Their mind must be fighting with the natural feeling they have to harmonise and avoid conflict and their need, which can be equally forceful, to preserve their face and ego.

As Westerners, we are not always aware when a Thai’s reaction changes from smiling or walking away to calculated revenge. First, the vacant look or the smile may turn to a sterner facial expression. The change may be slight and almost imperceptible. But it could be the first warning signal you get that the situation may deteriorate. Without further talking and certainly without any argument or discussion, the Thai may walk away. But it is also possible that the next step will be a violent outburst. Other Thais present will feel compelled to join in. In the West, we would regard a fight with several people against one opponent unfair and even cowardly. Thais don’t look at it like that. Such western thinking is outweighed by their conviction that loss of face must be avenged by any means if their attempts at harmonising a problem have failed. Face is a powerful force in Thailand.

For many cultural issues in this country, the farang needs to suspend his disbelief at many things that he sees and hears. One cannot change a way of thinking cultivated over many generations and learnt from family and peers. Nor should we ever think of doing so. Different peoples; different cultures.

Thais tend to deal with potential conflicts by avoiding them whenever possible. We describe some situations in other chapters of Thailand Take Two. As with most Thai concepts, they can be inter-related. Conflict avoidance has its roots in hierarchy, face, mai pen rai, and a family’s economic background.

Here is a summary of how Thais cope with conflict.

1. They smile. This masks their anger and frustration but also is an indication that they prefer to adopt a mai pen rai, it is not that serious, attitude to their dilemma. They understand that they can rarely influence any outcome. It is easier to go with the flow. Do as the Thais have always done. They live with the situation. It is part of Buddhist teaching not to show emotions or how you really feel. Detaching yourself from worldly problems is a Buddhist aim. In the West, we tackle problems head on and have no compunction in positively criticising authority. Our legal system is adversarial; our parliament has checks and balances by having a loyal opposition. Opposing views are actively sought in order to try to arrive at the truth. Although Thailand’s justice and democratic systems are modeled on those of the West, in practice they are not applied in the same way.

2. To avoid a war of words or even a rational discussion a Thai will often not continue a conversation. It is a national trait not to accept responsibility and to avoid making an individual decision which could be unpleasant. An employee who is bored with his job would more likely say he is taking a few days leave to visit his sick mother than actually resign. Both employer and employee know he is not coming back. Both smile.

If a non-contentious resolution is considered possible, it is usual to let the village headman or a monk intercede informally. No one then loses face. Monks may intercede with chants and holy water. Taking a matter to the district office, the provincial government, or the courts is very rare and involves loss of face. Lawyers will be keen to do deals with the other side to avoid argument in court even though you are paying them to do battle for you. Retreating with a smile or taking the law into one’s own hands as a last resort is more usual. The authorities, the police, or the judges would more likely suggest arbitration and compromise in any case.

3. Sometimes a Thai will “kick the cat.” As farangs, we may sometimes take out our frustrations on a defenseless pet to get rid of our anger. The Thai will take it one step further. In front of the person he has a dispute with, he will scold the cat, punishing it for lying to him and stealing from him. He is actually directing his venom against the person who has wronged him. He is letting him know what he really wants to tell him if culture allowed such openness. This is the Thai concept of prachut, where one’s anger is projected at another person, animal or an inanimate object. The person, animal, or object is being made the scapegoat in place of the real target for anger. It is a means of staying friends with someone by not directly chastising the person who is the real object of your displeasure. The anthropological term is projected vilification. There’s an example in A Thailand Diary where a Thai woman is voicing her anger at her husband in precisely this way. (16 February entry)

4. Another device that is regularly used is the “fake” excuse. Two friends accept your offer of a lift to the train station. A colleague of theirs with whom they have a dispute overhears you and asks if she can come along. Everyone agrees but the atmosphere is a little cold. After a short time, your two friends complain of carsickness and ask if they can get out of the car. A Thai would recognise this as a phony pretext for not staying in the car. They are reproaching their colleague in the only way they know. There is no direct criticism or squabbling but they get their point across Thai style. Sometimes claiming a headache or stomach sickness may be cathartic, a solution to alleviate a fear or complex instead of bottling up one’s emotions. As Westerners, we do not perceive what has happened or whether the alleged sickness is psychosomatic or not. The game has been played so subtly and so well.

5. Everyone gossips. The Thai can use that art form to release their anger and avoid direct conflict. Dreadful revenge may be planned behind closed doors and atrocious lies may be told. Seldom will anything come of these private outbursts which serve mainly to liberate their pent-up emotions. An employee may have to say, “ka, ka, ka,” (yes, yes, yes) to her boss, unable within her culture to discuss or comment on an instruction given her. Gossiping with her friends when her manager is out of the office is her solution. Anonymous letters are used for the same purpose. Thais accept rather than revolt.

Prior to the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932, there were coups and protests to effect change. There was rioting and bloodshed but not at the level seen in the American and French revolutions. The transition was more restrained. Even today, the political uncertainty and conflict in the country is not overtly transparent in daily life. It is very much business as usual with no one rocking the boat. Individual political parties will forcefully state their case but people accept that change will come slowly and immediate conflict avoided. It is the Thai way.

6. When all else fails and indirect methods do not work, a clash becomes inevitable. A Thai may resort to the bullet or the knife. Such cases of violence are more prevalent here than in the West. The Thai media, with no English readership to worry about and with no concerns about the repercussions on tourism, routinely report the gory details of fierce squabbles in the community. Murder is not uncommon though a warning signal of damaging your garden crops or killing a dog are typical first warnings. All will be the subject of neighbourhood gossip with the locals avidly studying the photos that the police have taken in staging reconstructions of crimes they say have been committed by those they believe are the culprits.

It must be emphasised that extreme measures are very much last options. Thais believe that the application of the law of karma in the next life will take care of wrongdoing. Stressful conflict or revenge has little place in their daily lives. Smiling is better.

You go into the department store and every member of staff smiles at you as you walk along the aisles. The smile friendly. A young girl is sitting at a demonstration counter for a new promotional brand of coffee. She is bored because she doesn’t have a customer to serve or chat with. But she’s smiling the smile automatic. You go over to taste the coffee and make a joke, interchanging aroi dee (tasty, delicious) with aree doi. This has no meaning at all, which is why it is funny to a Thai.

This play on words brings out a broad smile as she realises that a farang is lightening the monotony with a popular joke. She is still smiling, but the smile has changed from the smile automatic to the smile humourous. The coffee is actually no better than any other brand, but of course you don’t say so. She asks if you want to buy some, you politely decline. She responds by saying, “mai pen rai ka.” She had hoped to make a sale but is not uptight about not having done so. She smiles the obligatorysmile mai pen rai. Three different smiles in as many minutes.

A young trainee is having a hard time stacking some cans of fruit. He is trying to make a decorative pyramid display but the cans keep falling down. His manager doesn’t raise his voice or get angry, though he is disappointed with the trainee’s efforts. The young lad knows it. His pyramid is never going to stand up. He shows the smile downhearted while listening to the manager’s comments.

It isn’t that the trainee is afraid of his manager. His smile shows respect and acceptance, not terror. He knows his place in the social structure and is aware of his position in the company. Western psychologists have suggested that the Thais live in fear and are therefore subservient. Smiling because they sometimes have to accept a situation or have to observe the rules of hierarchy reflects the power of these two cultural influences, not fear.

The manager smiles and remembers his days as a new boy when he made a mess of the simplest of tasks. He gives the all-knowing smile.

Never be too serious or critical in Thailand; try to react in a Thai way whenever possible.

You walk past a farang who is arguing with a sales assistant because his bread toaster has blown a fuse for the third time and he is fed up with having to keep coming back to the store. She smiles and arranges yet another replacement. But the farang interprets her smile apologetic as being facetious and rude. Why isn’t she taking this seriously and acknowledging the trouble all this is causing him?

He keeps arguing with her; she does not stop smiling. The more she smiles; the more irritated he gets. His voice, from a Thai perspective, is unacceptably and unnecessarily loud. The customer perceives the encounter as ongoing rudeness. She believes she has done all she can by offering a replacement.

Her Thai upbringing is seeing things differently from the Westerner. She is trying to avoid argument and unpleasantness, trying to deflate the difficult encounter by smiling. She sees nothing contradictory about her behaviour. Her smile turns from the smile apologetic to the smile of embarrassment.

She wonders why this farang is getting so upset and jai rawn (hot-tempered). Why is he being so unreasonable and angry? Why can’t he be like a Thai? Does he not realise he is losing face?

Everyone is staring at the Westerner now. He just doesn’t realise that all the commotion he is causing is getting him nowhere. Perhaps he should learn to read the smiles and the body language, and to understand the Thai way of thinking on everyday matters.

The assistant has offered a further replacement. No criminal offence has been committed. Why is he being so solemn and stern? She cannot understand why he is getting hot under the collar over something that a Thai would see as of little consequence. She has never before seen customers make such a fuss over the quality of goods. Thais know goods can be faulty and may need to be changed several times. It doesn’t matter, mai pen rai yet again.

Farangs have greater expectations of goods being fit for purpose than Thais and there is little redress for poor quality in Thailand. To some extent, the stores know this. Although in this case, the assistant was trying to be helpful. The Westerner needed to be calmer, perhaps joking with her, and being more long-winded in explaining the problem from his point of view. She or a manager may then have offered a small gift as recompense.

You walk further along the aisle, realising that you need to buy a spirit level. The supervisor speaks good English. Although he smiles and says he understands, you’re not making any progress with him. He has no idea what the English word “spirit level” means and you understandably cannot recollect the Thai word.

It would be easy if you could point to some on the shelves but you are out of luck. You cannot see any and you are at a loss how to describe what you want. Now you are both smiling the smile of misunderstanding. You may as well smile; not smiling won’t help. You are beginning to understand Thai smiles.

No coffee. No spirit level. You are not having a good day, are you? It’s time for a cold beer. Half a dozen locals are gathered around their favourite watering hole, and they smile when you pull up a stool and join them. Their English isn’t any better than your Thai. There are pauses in the conversation while you both try to find the word you want in each other’s language. It does not seem to matter. They smile the smile of encouragement in your direction, willing you to join in their repartee and banter anyway. You say how hot the weather is today. Not an earth-shattering observation but everyone is happy and enjoying the beer and the company.

You catch only a few words of what they are saying but you understand that they are talking about a friend who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Everybody hopes he will get better, or at least be more comfortable in the months ahead. Their smiles of sadness are not uncaring or disrespectful. Your bar mates are looking on the bright side, when more medication and care from family and community will make his last days as pain-free as possible. His being with friends at home is seen as something to smile and be happy about.

They change the subject to what all keen bar-goers are good at, putting the world to rights. Whether it’s how they would deal with the traffic jams in Bangkok or how flood control needs to be more effective, everyone has an opinion. Everyone has something to say. Some agree; some disagree. No one stops smiling. The smiles of agreeing and the smiles of disagreement merge seamlessly, very different from the way arguments can get heated or serious in the West.

Thais can of course disagree strongly and become violent, but the issue has to be exceptionally important. Compromise is always the first option.

One of your drinking partners talks of a boundary dispute he has with a neighbour. He is not uptight about a few metres of land but his neighbour’s longan trees are towering over his garden and getting dangerously near his house. He has tried pootwan, sweet talk. He has tried compromising by suggesting the neighbour prune back only the larger branches. He says he calmly walked away, knowing that getting angry would not have helped. He’ll go to the village headman and something will be sorted out.

I am sure readers will have guessed that when he walked away he was smiling. The smile of avoiding conflict. It is a difficult one for us to grasp.The world always looks brighter from behind a smile.

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