Why do the Thais always ask you how old you are?
In the western world you don’t dare asking a woman how old she is. It is considered rude and intrusive, and many western women will flat out refuse to tell you their age.
The implied concept is that aging is a bad thing for a woman and should be hidden as much as possible. Being secretive about age and even lying about it is considered acceptable.
Now let’s move on over to Asia. Here comes our first time Thailand visitor, a woman for our story, and she is taken aback since people regularly ask her how old she is. Why are they so nosy in Thailand? Why do they pry into such intimate subjects?
The dreaded age question is actually good etiquette in Thailand
Little does our traveler know that age has a very different meaning in Thailand than in the west. Rather than being something to be avoided, it is actually necessary to know people’s age in order to have proper social interactions.
In the west, in English speaking countries we address everyone as “you”, regardless of their age, social status or income level. In Thailand this is not so. If you are talking to someone who is older than you, a different word is used than if you talk to someone who is younger than you.
Even if that person is only one year older than you, it requires the use of a different word to address him or her. So how do you know if someone is older or younger than you in order to address them correctly? You ask them how old they are!
Actually if a younger person is addressed with the word which is meant for someone older, it is considered rude and offensive.
Sounds complicated? It is for us westerners, but luckily we are not expected to know anything about those age-related subtleties. We are excused from the finer details of social interaction in Thailand.
The same word can have a different meaning in another language
If you ask a Thai if they have brothers or sisters, you will find out that there is no word for ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ in the Thai language. There are only words for ‘younger sister’ or ‘older sister’, ‘younger brother’ or ‘older brother’.
In Thailand age does not have the same negative meaning as it does in the west where old age is seen as unavoidable but lamentable. Thais treat the elderly with respect and they take care of them.
There is no social security or pension system in Thailand unless you are a government employee like teachers or policemen. Instead the family fills the role of old age security.
Asking someone’s age is a necessity in Thailand
So the dreaded age question is part of good social etiquette in Thailand. It is a necessity to know the age of the people you interact with in order to address them properly.
Everybody in Thailand understands this and therefore will never be offended if you ask them their age, and neither should you be.
Age is one of many words that have a different meaning in Thailand than in the west. Although the word can be translated, the actual meaning will not be the same.
The unique challenge of traveling in different cultures is to understand that our way of thinking is not the only one. Whereas for you the ‘age’ question might be rude and inappropriate, in Thailand it is part of good social etiquette.
The author, Shama Kern, has been living in Thailand for over a decade with his Thai wife. He is the founder and director of Thai Healing Massage Academy. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org