Thailand is nicknamed “Land of Smile” for a good reason. Visitors to Thailand quickly realize that there is something very special about Thais: they smile at you at every opportunity they get. It’s a tool that captivates and disarms even the most cold-hearted foreigner. Deep down, however, this famous smile is more of a self-defense. If somebody is killed in a car crash, Thais will surround the crash site within minutes…and smile. Not because they think it’s funny, but rather because these tragedies of life are so invincible that only smiling prevents one from being driven crazy.
Foreigners easily lose their composure – Thais don’t. They keep on smiling. Take the following examples: A Thai appears an hour late for a meeting, but simply smiles. Somebody commits suicide, but the bereaved smile. Heavy rains destroy a year’s crop, but the farmer smiles. Somebody gets fired, but he smiles.
Thai people do not want to show their problems to others. They often live in very cramped spaces and have learned to not communicate inconvenient truths, as to not cause pain to others.
It is actually very simple: The smile is a way of expression for things that are not easily expressed. Smiles are simply another language. The smile is perceived as just about the most appropriate answer to any situation. It is used to show happiness, embarrassment, fear, tension, resignation, remorse, and even disgust. Thais have a number of smiles, which may all look the same to foreigners. To Thais, however, they offer an amazing array of distinctions:
- yim tak tai: The polite smile, used for strangers
- feun yim: The “I am forced to smile, even if I don’t want to” smile
- yim cheuat cheuan: The winner’s smile over a rival
- yim tang nam dtah: The truly happy smile
- yim tak tan: The “sorry you are wrong again” smile
- yim sao: The smile masking sadness or unhappiness
- yim mee lay-nai: The evil smile
- yim cheun chom: The admiring smile
- yim yor: The arrogant smile
- yim mal ork: The forced smile
- yim yair-yair: The smile to apologize and take the heat out of an awkward, embarrassing situation
- yim hairng: The nervous, apologetic smile
- yim soo: the “it cannot get any worse therefore I better smile” smile
Western culture is all about easily understandable and reliable assurances, such as “yes”, “no”, “I believe you” or “I don’t”. Westerners need and trust confirmations by words. Thais don’t! Thais may say “yes” and smile, but every Thai knows what is really meant: “No”. Or perhaps: “Maybe.” Or “Not yet sure.”
Pay attention to the different smiles you encounter on your journey through Thailand and you soon will be able to distinguish them from each other.