The “Truth” about Thai Smiles
So, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Thailand, often staying months at a time. And like many Westerners in Thailand, I often rely on the various online expat forums for information. The various Facebook groups—and even the old-school Thai Visa Forum—can be very useful resources. From help navigating Thai bureaucracy to finding a good hair stylist, such groups can be a life saver.
But they can also be a shocking object lesson in the bias, entitlement, and unchecked privilege of some folks in the various Western ex-pat communities of South East Asia.
There are the digital nomads who deride the demands of immigration officials and insist they aren’t breaking any laws working without a work permit.
There are the backpackers who complain that Thai street vendors and songteaw drivers charge them more than what the locals pay.
There are the sex-pats who complain that Thai women are just gold diggers who lie about their age and pretend to love them.
There are the big spenders who complain that Thais do not appreciate their custom enough and ought to be more grateful for their patronage and provide better service.
As you might imagine, I have much to say about these subgroups of so-called farang. But for now, I’m just going to address the one thing that seems to unites the worst of them in an online discussion.
Thailand is famous for its smiles. It’s known as the “Land of Smiles,” after all. But, according to the denizens of the internet’s lesser regions, the ubiquitous permanent smile of the people of Thailand is actually FAKE!
Can you believe it?!?!?!?
You see, when you are asked for extra documents at immigration and you become agitated, or you’re charged a little more than locals when flagging down a songteaw, or you are spurned by a woman after spending a considerable amount of money to please her, or you get less-than-obsequious service at your hotel and object to charges on your bill, your negative experience is often accompanied by a smile.
And if you spend any length of time in the country, you’ll eventually become privy to the typical social problems, discrimination, personal drama, and gossip one finds in almost every community on Earth. But in Thailand, such agro often seems to happen behind a smile.
So the obvious “logical” conclusion to any negative interpersonal experience must be that the people of Thailand are “two-faced,” hiding their duplicity behind their constant smiles.
I’m not an expert in Thai cultures.* Nor am I going to argue that the people of Thailand are the “nicest in the world.” That’s utter nonsense.
The people of Thailand are people. They are both good and bad, kind and unkind, duplicitous and honest, and pleasant and surly, just like people everywhere. And many long-term expats who I respect can list many fair criticisms of Thai society, just as we can all outline the failures of our own societies, if we’re honest.
But like many Asian countries, Thailand has a high-context non-confrontational culture that lends itself well to the tourism sector. And like many cultures all over the world, the people of Thailand put a high value on being hospitable to guests. This can lead to naïve (and patronizing) pronouncements from visitors about how nice Thai locals are.
And people in Thailand do smile. A lot.
They smile when they are amused. They smile when they are happy to see you.
They also sometimes smile when delivering bad news. They may also smile when dealing with an angry customer. They often smile when interacting with a person they do not like. And they definitely smile when they say they understand you, even when they don’t. This is by no means an absolute—I’ve seen my fair share of non-smiling Thai locals!
But here’s the thing. Thai locals often smile by default in their social interactions. And Thai locals have a cultural understanding of what a smile means, in both positive and negative contexts. It is all part of that high-context “face-saving” culture so common in Asia. And in Thailand, face-saving combined with non-confrontation results in a generally pleasant demeanor on the surface, regardless of the emotions brewing beneath that surface.
But, it’s not a “put-on” in the Western sense, it’s a social norm.
And this social norm makes for an overall pleasant experience for Western visitors, and a sometimes confusing experience for anyone who spends any quality time immersed in Thai culture or really interacting with Thai locals.
But the important thing to remember, and the main point in this blog post, is that Thai smiles are NOT FAKE.
They are, in fact, very real. And they mean exactly what they are intended to mean.
(The people of Thailand do not smile for your benefit, farang.)
Those who try to understand the Land of Smiles within the social codes of Western culture will eventually be frustrated. (In fact, trying to understand the world through the lens of Western culture and social norms is a bad idea, full stop.) Unfortunately, many people fail to notice when they are doing it.
And the truly ugly hearted seem to appease their frustration by launching into Western-centric racist screeds about a culture they clearly don’t want to understand.
As I said, I’m not an expert. But I know enough to know that Thai smiles are not disingenuous as a rule; they are part of a genuine code of behaviour that is normal in Thailand.
In other words, a “smile” isn’t always a “smile.”
Except when it is.
*Not all the “locals” in Thailand are Thai—there are many ethnic groups indigenous to Thailand with different languages and cultural practices. (There are also many migrant workers. Ironically, many of the “Thais” Western tourists encounter in the service industry are not ethnic Thais or indigenous locals at all but migrant workers from other countries like Myanmar, Malaysia, or the Philippines.) When I speak of Thai culture or cultures, I refer to the overall culture common among locals in Thailand, not a specific trait of the Thai ethnic group.