What does a smile mean to you? If you are from a western country, you most likely associate smiling with feeling good. That is not always true in Thailand. Thai smiles can mean many things.
There are over a dozen words in the Thai language that refer to all different types of smiles. Thais use smiles to express emotions of politeness, happiness, embarrassment, frustration, indifference, condescension, nervousness, or just to mask their real feelings.
Does this mean that the famous Thai smile is not real, that it is a fake? No, it just means that you have to expand your definitions of what it can mean.
- Some examples: A western man sees a pretty Thai woman on the street and she flashes him a beautiful smile. It does not mean she likes him, she is just being polite or friendly.
- You talk to a Thai and he is smiling. He might not understand much of what you are saying because you talk too fast, but instead of saying ‘slow down please’, he just smiles to cover the fact that he does not understand
. Youtalk to a Thai hotel clerk and complain about something. She might think you are unreasonable, but instead just smiles at you to avoid a confrontation.
Often smiles are used to cover up the true emotion or to ‘save face’.
Once I saw a motorbike pull out of a side street without looking, and the driver almost got hit by a big truck, a potentially lethal accident. You would think that the bike rider would look like a ghost, blood draining out of his face, shock written all over his face.
Let’s put this into perspective. Despite all those types of smiles, more often than not Thais are genuinely friendly people, and their smile is a great way to react to many situations.
After all, wouldn’t you rather get a beautiful, polite smile, instead of the ‘elevator stare’ – you know the situation – everyone in the elevator pretends that nobody else is in there by desperately avoiding any eye contact.
In the west, smiling at total strangers is not a common habit and might even get your motives questioned if you are a man smiling at an unknown woman. In Thailand, however, a man can smile at a totally strange woman and will generally get a beautiful smile in return without any hesitation.
Granted, it does not mean she will marry you, but it still makes your heart sing. And people will just as freely talk to you.
Thai culture avoids confrontation and the expression of negative emotions. Isn’t it nicer to get a polite smile in an uneasy situation rather than the look of ‘you are really starting to get on my nerves’?
In Bangkok, Thailand’s bustling capital, the Thai smile is gradually losing out to the stressful and hectic life in crowded urban environments, but in most other places in Thailand you will find yourself surrounded by beautiful smiles, genuine friendliness, and people who are mostly easy-going, happy and sweet by nature.