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Friday, December 9, 2011

Thai Smile customs- culture.

What's in a smile? Well to a Thai, it's almost life itself.

One of the most appealing aspects of travelling around Thailand to someone new to the country, is the Thai smile. Many foreigner traveling to Thailand have commented to me that they have never experienced anything like it. It's almost as if they question whether their home country, in fact the rest of the world, has got it all wrong. In my own humble opinion I think they probably have and it is one of the jewels in the Thai culture that's often overlooked.

The power of a smile
You can experience the power of the Thai smile as you arrive in a European capital after a visit to Thailand and are confronted by faces showing, stress, distress, and at best a neutral demeanour. There is no uplift in your own heart as you arrive in these places as the smile is missing.

From the moment you set foot on Thai Airways or arrive in the airport you can see working people going about their business with a smile and rarely a frown on their face. This is not absolute and I will talk about the unhappy below. I must admit that not all immigration personnel are happy and smiling but we must be careful of being too literal, they have a serious job to guard the Thai boarders. However once you are enveloped by the Thai culture and custom of smiling, it is uplifting and relaxing. It's as if everything is possible.

The Thai custom to smile
The smile is something that all Thai's give to each other. I think it adds to community, a sense of agreement on what it is to be Thai and it echos and reverberates through society. There are strong beliefs among Thai people about the way you should conduct yourselves. It is important not to externalize your negative emotions as this spreads unhappy thoughts around. Conversely, showing a positive outward demeanour means that you can enter conversation with a positive spin. Living with a positive spin is a lot easier to have a happier life and or to get a solution to a problem.

A Thai introduction starts with a smile
Many assume the equivalent to a western hand shake is a wai between people (a bowing gesture with palms of the hands together in a Christian prayer shape, and the tips of the fingers just below the nose). This is the form of greeting, the initial physical recognition of each other but the equivilant of the pressure of the hand grip in a hand shake is fully completed in Thailand by the smile.

No negotiation will ever progress far unless you come to it with an open and light heart, being prepared to give and take. By smiling you are showing that you are alive to the possibilities and that perhaps your stance can be improved on or altered. There is a strong believe that both sides of a negotiation can be recognised and accommodated.

I suppose the Asian love of harmony is at the bottom of this, the ideal of, if we try to live together, more can be achieved than if we set up barriers and come accross as confrontational, negative or cup is always half full.

Thai characters traits
For Thai people, a smile is the norm and shows you are jai dee (a good heart, good character). It shows to the outside world that you are not angry, or hot tempered and that you have a sunny disposition. This might seem a strange emphasis but one of the worst commentaries you can have thrown at you is that you are jai lrorn (a hot head) or worse jai dum (a black heart, a bad character). Many Thai people will naturally steer clear of jai lrorn and jai dum as this type of character will be associated with trouble.

A smile rather than language
The Thai language is a complex process of protocol with a far less precise grammar structure than say English of German. Also it is is very full of idioms. The literal Thai translation for 'hi, how's it going' can mean 'have you eaten' or 'where are you going friend?' in the many and various situations of life.

Thai hierarchies and language
Traditionally the Thai society is very structured with very definite hierarchies and positions to be observed. Talking to an elder or younger, a subordinate, a superior or a government official might all employ differing turns of phrase showing the understanding of each others place in that society, organization or family. The smile of a jai dee person is the universal language that cuts through all the levels and allows you to communicate with everybody more freely.

A smile is in the eyes.
Not all smiles are the same. This is a world wide truth. A smile from a politician might not have the same resonance as a smile between friends and family. A genuine smile seems to show in the eyes and last longer. A happy person, unaffected by pressures has a clear shinning smile that makes the eyes glow (a twinkle) and conversely an unhappy person has a smile that shows a duller hue, or even a sadness. Similarly a smile born of genuine happiness lasts longer than one that has been is forced.

Don't be confused by a smile and hard reality.
Many tourists staying in a hotel or resort in Thailand are totally knocked out by the Thai smile and fall in love with the country and people immediately. This is understandable for the reasons above. However the Thai smile can often mask realities of daily life.

I have seen Thai people who have taken a knock and are obviously in pain, smile as they don't want to show that pain. They dont want to share their anguish and want to minimise a bad experience for their friends. I suppose this is similar to a stoic's response in Europe.

I have seen people smile and say yes to questions when they should have said no, rather than admit they cant help a tourist in their country. This is a matter of face, another custom and complexity of understanding what is going on in Thailand. (I'll write something about this soon.) This could be seen as weak willed and it sometimes is, but is also part of a Thai's natural custom to look after Thai-ness and covers their inate pride in which they hold their own country.

Protesting with a smile

Face and smiling is one of the areas that causes most problems for tourist in Thailand. Here is example. A tour bus is late and the tourist wants to know why it is late as they might miss their ferry boat, transfer etc. The bus driver will often give a smile and give a 'sorry I don't know' in response. The Thai national will understand that it is late but has no way of changing this fact. His answer might very well be to smile in this situation. This can often be read incorrectly by the foreigner who might think that the Thai is making fun of him or that he doesn't care. This might make the foreigner more upset but still the only reaction is a smile. The westerner wants to see that there is some sympathy with their situation (as European values would perhaps expect). However in this situation, the foreigner seems to get the opposite. If the foreigner persists in questioning and raising his her voice, the Thai might move from a smile to a nervous laugh. This intern upsets the foreigner more but this is the instinctive reaction to situations where the Thai feels that matters are getting out of control.

Fixing a problem using Thai customs to your advantage.
If there is a problem, never get upset or show your feelings externally as this will get a counterproductive reaction. Try to relax and smile and go through your problem, request for information and you will get a lot further. Perhaps this will take a lot more time than back in a home country but going calmly about your business will get to a solution or no solution without creating further problems.

Unhappy people
Life is complex and not all Thai people follow the one stereo type or idealized pattern that is learnt in Thai schools. Tourists do come accross those who are worked too hard or are too tired. There are some that only see westerners as an opportunity to make some money. ( I would ask you to consider whether there are people like that in your own country). The smile is not in the eyes any more and with everyone like this all over the world, you try to keep your distance. Having said that, many of these unhappy people will be better company if you in turn smile at them.... smiling can be addictive and contagious!!

Happy Smiling..


  1. Just write something here.
    Agree, disagree, give me an experience....!

  2. I have been fortunate enough to go to Thailand on a number of occasions and have always found the Thai smile to be very friendly and welcoming.:)

  3. A great article, explaining why Thailand deserves the nickname "Land of Smiles". People smiling so readily is one of the reasons I'm so attracted to this country. I've written about the many different smiles in Thailand in this blog entry a while back:

  4. Still reads well and hold true on 2013