“Thailand is a land of smiles.” If you have ever been interested in Thailand, you must have heard this saying at least once. But have you ever stopped and asked yourself, “why do people call Thailand that way?”
Thailand is a land of smiles because Thai people smile all the time. They smile when they’re happy. They smile when they’re sad. They smile when hope is lost, and all they can see is darkness. These smiles come from the power of their humor, the Mai Pen Rai attitude, and the value of “face.”
Understanding Thai smiles is vital if you want to spend time in the country. Read on to explore the nuances and particulars behind the many shapes of Thai smiles.
Why Is Thailand Called the Land of Smiles?
No matter where you go in Thailand, you always see the locals smiling. And that is no exaggeration. Even in a case where a smile is inappropriate, like in a bar fight or a political debate, they can still smile. It can sometimes creep you out, but that’s why Thailand is called the land of smiles.
Needless to say, the Thai smile has its origin. If you look closely at the Thai way of life and values, you will see why they always smile. There are three simple reasons for this: Thai humor, Mai Pen Rai attitude, and the “face” concept.
1. Thai Humor
As you already know, you can’t laugh if you don’t smile. And Thai people are exceptional at creating laughter. Why? Because they laugh at everything.
Humor is a concept that doesn’t transcend borders. A killing joke in one country might fall flat in another. Worst case scenario, you can offend your international friends with your local jokes. And these kinds of scenes often happen with Thai people.
While many Thai jokes are genius puns and word plays, a bunch of them are also discriminative. Thai people make jokes about everything offensive. Whether it’s skin colors, physical appearances, their parent’s names, and even hobbies.
Of course, most countries have this kind of thing. It’s called “bullying.” But in Thailand, these jokes are rarely considered “bullying” but more of “good fun.”
And the weird thing about it is that the offended often smile and laugh together with the offenders. It doesn’t mean that they are not offended. They just “understand” that these jokes are based on “good fun.” So, there’s no need to be defensive.
Of course, not all Thai jokes are internationally offensive or discriminating. Many are creative (in the Thai language) as well. Thai men and LGBTQ are famous for their quick wit and comedic sense. Some groups can converse for hours by linking one inside joke to another, creating a long stream of smiles and laughter.
2. “Mai Pen Rai” Attitude
If you have been to Thailand, you must have heard the phrase “Mai Pen Rai.” These three words embody the Thai easygoing and harmony-loving characteristics and capture them in one utterance. It means “it’s okay.”
Even though the translation is simple, you cannot take it at face value. Why? Because this phrase has a much broader meaning than its translation suggests.
Generally, the locals use this phrase in two situations: to politely turn down an offer and to assert that they are fine when hurt or offended.
In Thai culture, turning down a gift or dinner invitation is rude — especially to elders. However, there are cases where people cannot say “yes.” As a result, they choose to say “Mai Pen Rai.” It’s more polite and less aggressive than a straight “no.”
When Thai people are unintentionally offended, they usually don’t want the offender to worry and feel burdened with guilt. So when the offenders realize and say sorry, the offended usually say “Mai Pen Rai.” Of course, that is a blatant lie. However, they need to say it to keep the mood of their relationship from going sour.
So, if you plan to spend some time in Thailand, you should study how to use this phrase effectively. It comes in handy in many situations.
3. “Face” Concept
When you say “face,” you might think of the front side of your head where the eyes, nose, and lips belong. In Thailand, however, it is much more than that.
Basically, “face” is a sociolinguistic term describing a facade that embodies reputation, pride, ego, and dignity. The concept of “face” is quite widespread in Asia. It also exists in western countries, but not as strongly as in the east. (Source)
“Face,” in a sense, is like money. You can gain and accumulate it over time or lose it all at once. And if you are crafty enough, you can also manipulate it to acquire desirable items, power, and actual cash. (Not recommended, though)
You can “gain face” by acting in ways that boost your confidence, ego, and pride while skyrocketing your reputation. These actions could be influential and worth celebrating, like donating to charity, winning a competition, and achieving life milestones. However, it could be something small and wicked too. For example, succeed in tricking someone or winning an argument on nonsensical topics.
On the other hand, you can “lose face” by doing the opposite. Whatever causes you to feel worthless, humiliated, and shame can cause you to lose face. For example, being tricked, showing excessing emotions, and getting caught misbehaving.
But how does the “face concept” relate to a smile?
Generally, when Thai people fall into a face-losing situation, they will put up a smile. It doesn’t mean that they don’t feel bad. However, showing their dissatisfaction will cause them to lose face even more. In other words, they just try to save face by acting nonchalantly.
Of course, some smile because they really don’t care. However, these people are a minority in this serious “face” country.
Now. You understand why Thai people smile all the time. Next, you might want to know about the different Thai smiles.
What Does a Smile Mean in Thailand?
You can interpret Thai smiles in millions of ways. But since Thai people smile so much, it might be difficult to distinguish one from the rest. You need to learn at least the basic situation of each smile. And here are five examples you should know of.
Remember that each smile in this list may look exactly the same. It depends on how skilled the person is at faking a smile. So, judging by the eye alone might not be the best idea. You need to read the context and other body languages too.
1. Greeting Smile
Start off with the most basic. Thai people smile when they greet each other.
As you may know, the Thai have a greeting culture called “Wai” (ไหว้). You perform this action by clasping your hand together on your chest (like when you clap). Then you bow your head until it touches your fingers.
Usually, Thai people smile when they “Wai” from start to finish (and hopefully continue until the end of the conversation). You could almost say that smiling is the first step of the whole thing.
Nowadays, “Wai” is considered an old-school way to greet a friend. Most younger generations abbreviate this action to a wave or just a smile. These greetings work with friends. However, if you want to greet your elders (relative or not), do the “Wai” properly.
2. Humorous Smile
As mentioned, humor plays a significant part in Thai daily life. So no matter where you are, you will see this humorous smile.
This kind of smile is arguably the most genuine of all the five on this list. Why? Because it usually comes with laughter.
Needless to say, you laugh and smile whenever you find something funny. But it’s not easy to laugh at every joke. However, Thai people are extra vulnerable when it comes to laughter. They laugh at everything.
As discussed, many Thai jokes are offensive. You can find the most discriminating joke you’ve ever heard of in Thailand. But no matter how you look at it, people still think they’re funny and laugh away.
Of course, you can refrain from laughing if you dislike these jokes. However, make sure that you understand one thing. “Humor is different in every country.” So, don’t judge them too harshly for it.
3. “Mai Pen Rai” Smile
As mentioned, “Mai Pen Rai” generally means “it’s okay.” And to add weight to its meaning, Thai people add a smile to the words, enhancing its calming effect even further.
You can’t deny that most “Mai Pen Rais” aren’t genuine. It’s just a phrase that Thai people use to make others feel more assured and secure. One way or another, it’s what you may call a “white lie.”
And, of course, a smile helps smooth out this lie effectively.
However, if you really care for the person who says “Mai Pen Rai,” you can directly call them out. They might be taken aback. But it will allow you to get to know these people better. Just make sure that you also smile when doing this. Or else you might come across as intimidating.
4. Bluffing Smile
As the name suggests, this smile is not genuine at all.
The bluffing smile is heavily influenced by the concept of “face.” Why? Because if you display blatant disgust or dislike, you usually lose face. And Thai people don’t like that.
So, what do you do when you have to interact with someone you don’t like? That’s right. You smile. What do you do when you find a person’s speech irritating? You smile too.
On many occasions, Thai people hide their real emotions behind a bluffing smile.
It could be problematic if you come across this bluffing smile. The reason is that you can never be sure if the smile you see is a bluff or not. All you can do is guess. You don’t want to ask the person straight out because it could cause both of you to lose face — worsening the situation.
However, it doesn’t mean that this smile is all bad. Its redeeming feature is how it can make a restaurant as quiet as it should. You can see two Thai people who hate each other enjoying dinner together thanks to this bluffing smile.
5. Apologetic Smile
A smile and an apology don’t go together. And that makes this type of smile arguably the weirdest.
When you apologize, you generally want to show the interlocutor that you are sincere. Therefore, you usually pull a serious face and say, “I’m sorry.” However, that’s not always the case in Thailand. The locals can say sorry with the biggest smile on their faces.
The “face” concept plays a significant part in this situation. When you apologize, it usually means that you admit your own faults. Doing such can cause you to lose face. So, the easiest way to mitigate that is to tough it out and smile. Of course, you still lose face. But it still doesn’t hurt your pride as much.
Another reason — probably more important — is to reduce the tension. If there is one thing Thai people collectively dislike, it’s conflict. And a smile helps them prevent conflict from erupting.
If the apologizer says sorry with a smile, it keeps the mood from going more sour than it should. Of course, it doesn’t look sincere, but it’s more charming. The result of such an apology is entirely another matter. However, the mood is certainly saved.
Is Thailand Really the Land of Smiles?
After reading this far, you might want to know if the title “land of smiles” fits Thailand or not. The answer, however, depends on how you angle the question.
If your question means, “Do Thai people really smile all the time,” the answer will be yes. As mentioned, Thai people smile in all situations. They don’t just smile when they are happy. Their smiles bloom when they are sad, offended, upset, and even desperate.
You could even get sick of their smile when you leave the country.
On the other hand, if your question is, “is Thailand a land of happiness,” the answer will be no.
Poverty is a serious ongoing problem in Thailand. According to Thairath, around 20 million people declared themselves to the government as financially poor at the end of 2020. (Source)
That is roughly one-third of the population. Not to mention those who didn’t declare themselves.
Of course, poverty doesn’t always translate to unhappiness. However, you cannot deny that greater happiness comes with a better quality of life. And Thailand still can’t find a way to improve the situation.
In other words, you still can’t call Thailand the “land of happiness. Nevertheless, you can still call it the “land of smiles.”
Thai Smile at Its Core
With that said, you might come to the following conclusion. “Thai people’s smiles are actually not that genuine.” And that is understandable. After all, they smile in the most likely situation only to save face.
However, if you look closely at this culture, you will find that Thai smiles are much more than they appear to be.
The message of these “fake” smiles is actually “everything will be fine.” Thai people are always willing to tolerate minor displeasure if it means keeping the peace and harmony. That is why Thai people are so relaxed in the first place. Their smiles reassure everyone that “you will be okay no matter what.”
Like always, if you want to learn more about Thailand, stay with ThaiGuider. You might learn something you never knew about this unique country.