The Land of Fake Smiles

The Land Of (Fake) Smiles

Thailand has long been known as the ‘Land of Smiles’ and while Thais are a friendly people with a lively sense of humor  am I really the only one who thinks those smiles are a little more strained these days…? And would I be totally off the mark to say that a vast majority of the smiles seem positively fake?

Well, not really it seems. As more and more visitors to Thailand are beginning to realize that that not every smiling Thai is either happy or friendly, and that genuine, welcoming smile that Thailand was once so famous for is being seen far less often…

The Land of 13 Smiles

The Tourism Authority of Thailand is often keen to marketed itself  as the happy-go-lucky ‘Land of Smiles’, an impression that visitors will often see affectionately  portrayed in travel brochures, on TV adverts, and even on a big sign on arrival at Suvarnabhumi airport, welcoming them to the ‘Land of Smile’ (sic). But the unfortunate truth is that before even cleared immigration the majority of visitors have already experienced the very antithesis of a happy, smiling people in the surly, unfriendly immigration officials, and the scowling taxi mafia (as they lurk through arrivals looking for unsuspecting visitors to rip off).

This Thai unfriendliness hasn’t been overlooked by the Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board either, who ran a campaign recently to encourage tourists to visit Malaysia,

Where the smiles are still genuine’. In a less than subtle reference to Thailand. Ouch!

New visitors to Thailand, having bought into the Thai Smile propaganda often assume that the Thais are a very happy people, and will rave about how friendly the Thais are… how welcoming they are to whoever will listen. But this is a massive oversimplification. And things, as so often is true here are not always what they seem.

Smiling In Thailand Does NOT Equal Happiness!

The reason is there’s a much broader range of uses for smiling in Thailand, some of which would be considered as inappropriate or even downright rude in the west.

For example, if a Thai bumps into you in a bar and spills some of your drink, he’ll probably smile. A reaction that is unlikely to go down well with the average foreigner.

Similarly, smiling, even when affronted with rudeness, is quite normal for a Thai – much to the amazement of the unseasoned visitor.

Or, you might find that bad news is given with a smile. Such as the son or daughter who announces that their mother has just died, while grinning like a Cheshire cat!

While it might seem ‘off’ to us, to announce such news with a winning smile, it is completely natural to do so in Thailand, where it seems that whatever the situation is, to smile is the only appropriate action.  Smiles can be used to show (or hide) almost any emotion, be it happiness, joy, embarrassment, fear, anger, tension, resignation, remorse, sorrow, etc.

What the smile means actually depends on the ‘type’ of smile being used… and in Thailand there is a choice of 13 smiles.

And that’s where our confusion comes in, because far from just portraying happiness; Thai smiles can portray almost anything – to our untrained eyes anyway!

In the west, it’s easy. We smile, sincerely, when we’re happy. And although we do have a few smiles to convey other emotions, it’s pretty obvious when someone is faking it.

Thais though have a different approach, and what lies behind their smiles is not always happiness and joviality. Far from it. Some of these smiles can in fact be a mask for something entirely different and somewhat sinister.

Thai Smile Number 13

Yim thak thaai: The polite smile. For someone you barely know (a stranger or distant acquaintance for example). Or for when you’ve just met two strangers who have bored you to teats with their stories about their life in rural Canada, but you’ve had to smile, shake their hands, and say it was great to meet them.

Fuen Yim: The stiff smile. The one we might use if we don’t want to smile but are forced to… also known as the “I should laugh at your joke even though it’s not funny” smile.

Yim cheua-cheuan: The smug smile. That says “I am the winner”. This is the smile given to a losing competitor or used by a politicians the world over.

Yim tak tan: The attitude smile. Sorry but your wrong and I’m right!

Yim sao: The sad smile. Used to mask feelings of unhappiness, grief or sadness. Western women have a similar concept, the sad little smile accompanied by the words, ‘nothing, really’ when they’re asked, ‘what’s wrong?’

Yim mee lessanai: The smile which masks evil or wicked ideas. Particularly used in the sense of, ‘I’m about to rip you off, and you don’t even know it because I’m smiling’.

Yim yaw: The mocking smile. Used to taunt or laugh in an unpleasant manner at another person. This is  also the “I told you so” smile.

Yim cheun chom: The ‘I admire you smile’.

Yim mai awk: The inappropriate hidden smile. Translates as ‘smile not go out’, which means ‘I’m really trying hard to smile but I just can’t’ – it would be inappropriate to do so.

Yim yair-yair: The apologizing smile. Used to defuse potentially upsetting or embarrassing situations.

Yim haeng: The nervous ‘dry’ smile. Also known as the, “I know I owe you money, but I don’t have it right now” smile. ‘Oh, and I know that’s one of your favorite mugs I just broke, but please don’t get angry with me…” smile.

Yim soo: The hopeless smile. The situation is so bleak, you’ve got nothing better to do but offer a pathetic smile. eg: you’ve just been mugged, had your passport and money stolen, and your Embassy won’t do anything on your behalf . Yes, everything is hopeless, so I might as well smile anyways…

Yim thang nam taa: is the real thing… the ‘I’ve just won the lottery’ smile, or the ‘I’m so happy I’m crying’ smile.

So you can’t necessarily assume that any smiling Thai is either happy or friendly, because, as shown above, there are also a few less pleasant reasons for them to do so. Similarly it helps to know, for instance, that people smiling if you happen to trip up may not actually be laughing at you (yim yor), but just giving you a yim yair-yair to try and stop you feeling embarrassed.

Obviously, being able to distinguish one type of smile from another is no easy task for the average visitor to Thailand. It helps to be aware of the less pleasant varieties though and not, as many visitors do, get so mesmerized by the ‘happiness’ of everyone that you don’t see what’s really going on underneath the sometimes superficial smile. After all, many of the Thais you meet may well be working long hours in relatively menial jobs and earning less than $200 a month – do they really have so much to smile about ?

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On March 31, 2011, posted in: Thai Culture by
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