Thais rarely display strong negative emotions, with bouts of anger, tantrums, and public crying somewhat unusual. This doesn’t mean they aren’t displayed in private, or that the emotions aren’t there, simply that a person does not want to lose face by showing their feelings in public. Thais are often seen as being super laidback because of this.
A common phrase heard many times each day is mai bpen rai, which translates loosely as “no worries”, or “no problem”. You spilt your drink? Mai bpen rai. You failed an exam? Mai bpen rai. You ran someone over with your bicycle and broke their leg? Mai bpen rai. A close relative just died? You got it … Mai bpen rai.
Not only do travelers commonly hear this phrase in Thailand, they are in a culture which consistently practices it. It is difficult to find a phrase other than mai bpen rai which is so apt to describe life in Thailand. While the mai bpen rai attitude may be a complete polarization to what we’re used to back home, it can help us minimize and overcome culture shock.
Foreigners sometimes take the phrase as meaning that Thais don’t really get ruffled, take offense, or take things too seriously. Don’t abuse the notion that Thais are a completely carefree group, though, as underneath, they often do care, but have been conditioned to respond in such a way.
There are several nuances with the mentality as well. When answering a “Yes”/”No” question, and they want to reply in the positive, Thais often opt for mai pen rai. This is because they have a habit of rejecting help or an offer simply because they don’t want to cause trouble or inconvenience to that person. This demonstrates what is known as greng jai, a Thai concept of not wanting to trouble someone.
When someone says “Thank you”, mai pen rai may be the response. Not only is it a form of showing appreciation for your gratitude, but also a way of saying “There’s no need to thank me! It was nothing.” Despite the friendliness and unselfishness that Thais try to show by using mai pen rai, foreigners often misunderstand the meaning of the phrase. Some interpret it as “let it go” and “whatever,” while others even think it doesn’t mean anything at all.
For tourists in Thailand, the mai pen rai may simply be viewed as a welcoming friendly phrase, but for expats, this ambiguous concept can be hard to grasp. What many Thais view as a symbol of their affection and openness can sadly be perceived by non-Thais as vagueness and a lack of interest.
While the mai bpen rai mentality can ease culture shock, it can also exacerbate it, especially if you’re not culturally adaptable. If you are unbending in your discipline and approach, you might become frustrated with Thai informalities.
A similar common phrase one hears in Thailand is sabai sabai. “Sabai” means ‘comfortable’, and the phrase sabai sabai is often used to tell people to relax.
For more on the subtleties of mai bpen rai, have a look at Thaizer.
Yes Might Mean No & Repetition
On the rare occasion a Thai person says “No” outright, it means a firm “no”. “Maybe” is a safer, face-saving option, which probably means “no”, but may mean “yes”. “Yes”, however, doesn’t always mean “yes”.
As we have seen, Thai people don’t like letting others down, and will sometimes agree to things even if they don’t want to or have no intention to actually follow through on what they said. Plans are often fluid. It’s also quite rare for a Thai person to say they don’t know something, for example when giving directions. Rather, you may sometimes be told what a person thinks will make you happy at that particular point in time to save disappointing you or being unable to help, rather than thinking ahead about a greater inconvenience or disappointment later down the line.
Another aspect of Thainess is that people tend to repeat what you say back to you. Literally. Ask someone a question or make a statement and it’s common for a Thai person to just repeat it back. For foreigners, this is very weird and is usually totally misunderstood. Thais are indirect communicators who stress politeness. When they repeat something it means they might not have understood you, that they need time to process it or are looking for your reaction so they know what to say.