I saw something this evening that, I think, says a lot about the Thai smile, but perhaps first, I had better say something about the Thai smile itself. Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles, in the same way that Wales is famous as the Land of Song.
Most visitors assume that this means that Thai people are friendly, which they are like most people in most other countries. However, the Thai smile is used in other ways too. Mainly to paper over embarrassing moments.
So, for example, in the West, if someone falls over, we help them up and show concern, but in Thailand, they would smile (read ‘laugh’), and help them up. This is not callous, it is meant to save the face of the person who was stupid enough to fall over through not taking enough care.
With older people, that Thai smile works well. You laugh the problem off and the faller limps home, smile on his face and ‘face’ intact.
OK, this is where I think that the Thai smile does not work well, and which I witnessed this evening. A twelve year old boy was riding a motorcycle (and that is another problem). He turns into the shop where I am having a beer, buys something and remounts.
Unable to control the machine, he crashes in to the shop’s three rubbish bins sending the contents flying. The shopkeeper and two shoppers smiled (laughed) at him, told him everything was fine (to save his face) and off he went laughing.
He should never have been driving that machine. OK, but forgot about that. That boy went away thinking that it was acceptable to lose control of a heavy motorcycle! He now thinks that adults don’t mind if he behaves like an idiot!
In my town, he would have got a clip around the head and the bike would have been impounded by the shopkeeper, whether she reported it to the police or not. That boy would have left that shop completely aware that his behaviour had been unacceptable.
It is a major difference between Westerners and Thais and one that I think is a problem, an obstacle to their development in more ways than one.
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All the best.
Podcast: Thai Smile