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
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10 thoughts on “Why Thai Women Don’t Mind Telling You Their Age”
I just want to tel;l you what a wonderful blog you have on Thailand. What you say about relationships between Thai women and Western men is so true. Even the dowry is an absolute fortune when you marry in Thailand. A girl that I hardly knew asked me to marry her for 300,000 Baht, but I wisely, under the circumstances, decided to remain single as marrying Thais is too expensive.
However, I must correct you on one thing on this page and you should amend it accordingly. Only English speakers in the Western world only have one word for you. All other westerners have more than one, (e.g. “tu” and “vous” in French, “Du” and “Sie” in German, “tú” and “Usted” in Spanish etc). I have this too in my native tongue. We also need information about people, especially age, to know which one to use, although we may not be able to ask directly for it, but there are other indirect ways (e.g. When were you at university?)
Anyway, on the whole, keep up the good work.
Hi Eric,thanks for your response. You are right about the use of “you” in European languages, and I have corrected that in my article. I am actually quite aware of that since I went to school in Germany. So thanks for pointing out my oversight.
I appreciate your positive commments about my blog.
Sorry guys, but thai people are in fact very nosy and intrusive people by nature lol. And as far as asking westerners about their age for the purposes of how to properly address them, well lol, the only “term of respect” I have ever heard used was “Falong” no matter what the persons age. I’m being facitious of course.
I will agree that a person’s income, nationality, and even skin tone all play major roles in their social status.
Young people in Thailand surely do take care of older family members, more often then not at the expense of their own well being, (reference Pattaya).
Please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not trying to ruin anyones fantasy land ideas about Thailand. I’m just trying to keep things in perspective.
Thanks for your comment, Luke.
As far as intrusiveness is concerned, Thais don’t have the same concept of privacy and personal space that we have. I have seen my wife, who is Thai, strike up a conversation with a total stranger and after a couple of minutes they sounded like best friends who had known each other for years.
While Thais may seem more intrusive compared to our reserved western standards, I have never felt uncomfortable in this respect. To me it feels like a willingness to talk easily or a natural curiosity. If you really want to know what ‘intrusive’ feels like, go to India. 🙂
In regards to Thai cultural habits, you are right, we as “farang” fall outside of their perimeter. We are not expected to understand or follow the subtleties of their interactions like using the right words or greetings. Luckily so, since for us that would be rather complicated.
My wife always says “farang can do no wrong”. It is true that even if we commit a major social blunder, as “farang” we are forgiven or at least politely tolerated, whereas Thais would reap the consequences of their behavior.
On the flipside, the automatic respect level that we are awarded by Thais can be quite low since many regard us a cultural barbarians. However this changes once you speak some Thai.
Thanks again for your comment and please feel free to share your Thailand experiences anywhere on this blog.
Yes, a lot of the time the questions are aimed at determining your asset base as a possible spouse.
Yes, that’s something which is often the case unless the woman has a good job and is financially stable.
Years ago when I was on a trekking tour in Chiang Mai region the guides referred to me as “Papa”. I kind of took offense to this as it felt like they were denigrating me as an old man. Years later I realised that it was quite the opposite, they were just trying to give me the respect of my age.
Then I had a girlfriend that referred to me a s “Pi Graham”. It made no sense to me until I realised the cultural significance.
True, that’s hard for westerners to understand, that an age reference, and especially one that refers to one as being older, is actually a sign of respect and not an impolite statement.
Having been born and raised in California I don’t remember women being secretive about their age. Then we moved to the south and I found out you’d better not even consider approaching a women about her age. It is a tightly held secret for many down here. It makes me laugh even thinking about it. You are what you are whether you let people know or not. I for one consider my age a blessing.
True, Trina, it is quite bizarre to be so serious about hiding your age.