Thainess Part 10: The Thai Smile

Many people think of Thailand as a warm, happy, and welcoming nation because of the constant smiles. Indeed, Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles!


Smiles in Thailand don’t always show happiness and are sometimes used as a mask. That’s not to detract from the fact that many Thai people are, in fact, kind, welcoming, hospitable, and lovely, but to show that a smile may not be quite what you think it is. Here they smile for everything, even when they are upset, sad, or tired.

If you do something shocking by a lack of knowledge of Thai culture, such as sitting on a cushion used to rest the head, Thai people will be very embarrassed and will smile or laugh, but by gene, because it is very rude.

image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license

The two most common misinterpretations of a Thai smile are that they are always well-intentioned and that they are always ill-intentioned. The Thai smile is a form of communication, allowing the expression a range of emotions without physically or verbally taking action. It is capable of tempering confrontation, easing difficult situations and showing one’s appreciation.

According to Working With The Thais: A Guide to Managing in Thailand by Henry Holmes and Suchada Tangtongtavy, it has been said that there are as many as 13 distinct yim (smiles) in Thai society. The majority of these smiles fall into the “I’ll just smile” category rather than anything ill-intentioned. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a chart showing what these different smiles look like. I recommend asking a trusted Thai friend to demonstrate the different smiles for you using the Thai translations listed below.

1. Yim yaw (ยิ้มเยาะ)

The yim yaw smile might relate to a couple of things. It can intimate a kind of ‘I told you so’, or ‘I warned you’. Sometimes it’s just used in a teasing manner, though not harshly.

2. Yim cheun chom (ยิ้มชื่นชม)

This smile is a kind of controlled smile of admiration or acceptance. Think of it as a beautiful yet proud smile that could obviously have quite positive connotations.

3. Yim dor dhaan (ยิ้มต่อต้าน)

This is a kind of begrudging smile with a concession. It indicates that you disagree with something, but will go along with it for the sake of the greater good or whatever. You might find this to be a common one among Thai people – especially in hierarchical situations like the ones encountered at work or even in a social group.

4. Yim mee lessanai (ยิ้มมีเลสนัย)

This is a devious smile that masks bad intent. If you really upset your Thai partner, you should probably worry if you get this smile in return.

image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license

5. Yim chuead chuean (ยิ้มเชือดเฉือน)

This one is a bit of a ‘bad guy’ smile too – or ‘bad girl’—and maybe with a tad more theatre than the last one. Think gloating evil empress or something along those lines. Maybe an underpaid and corrupt fat police captain who knows he’s got you cornered good.

6. Yim mai awk (ยิ้มไม่ออก)

This is the smile used when concealing difficult emotion. It’s the “I’m trying my best to smile but I’m struggling” smile. This might be used when someone is brokenhearted or physically hurt.

7. Yim sao (ยิ้มเศร้า)

This is a sad smile. No, really – it’s like the standard smile of sadness–a true indication that someone really isn’t happy right now. Look out.

image © Khajonsak Manganu on Shutterstock

8. Yim yoh-yae (ยิ้มเหยาะแหยะ)

This smile is the Thai equivalent to suggesting that it’s not worth getting upset over something that seems pretty bad but has happened and can’t be changed. In essence, it’s the “no point in crying over spilt milk” smile.

9. Fuoon Yim (ฝืนยิ้ม)

This is the “mai jing jai” (literally translated as ‘not real heart’) smile. It’s a stiff and somewhat fake smile. For example, “I should laugh at the joke, but it’s not funny, so I’ll do this smile instead and help you move on”.

10. Yim haeng (ยิ้มแห้ง)

This is the dry smile, also known as the “I know I owe you the money but I don’t have it” smile. Oftentimes used by people who may not necessarily mean anything of what they say or say anything of what they mean.

image © Binder.donedat on Flickr)

11. Yim suu suu! (ยิ้มซื่อซื่อ)

Suu means fight, keep going, don’t give up – words of encouragement, basically. This is the Thai smile of encouragement – the ‘You can do it, kid” smile.

12. Yim thang nam daa (ยิ้มทั้งน้ำตา)

This is one of those Thai smiles must be interpreted carefully, as it can mean different things depending on the context of the situation. Nam taa literally means “water eyes” so this could be extreme joy or driven to tears. In some respects it could lean towards “I’m so happy I could cry”, or under slightly different circumstances it could be more a case of “I’m so sad inside, but I’m still smiling on the outside”, or perhaps “must keep laughing to keep from crying”.

13. Yim taak thaai (ยิ้มทักทาย)

This is the smile of convenience, a polite smile that enables you to acknowledge someone you don’t know that well, or someone you aren’t going to get into a long conversation with. It’s pretty much the most common smile you’ll get when out and about in Thailand.

image licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license

Yes, smiling is practically a way of life in Thailand. Doing so shows that you are a good, socially adapted person. If you smile often, you will be well regarded by the Thai people. It is, after all, the Land of Smiles.

Mark Stibich, PhD, a behavioral scientist who founded Xenex Healthcare Services in San Antonio, Texas, has published a list of nine reasons to smile:

1. It makes it attractive

A smiling person is always more attractive. Grinning repels, smiling attracts.

2. It puts you in a good mood

If you feel a little depressed, make yourself smile. Chances are your state of mind will change at the same time.

3. It’s contagious

When someone smiles, they radiate, and the effect is reflected on others. Smile a lot, and people will be looking for your company.

4. This helps to fight against stress

Stress leaves its mark on the face. Smiling prevents us from appearing tired. So if you’re stressed, remember to smile.

5. It boosts our immune system

Smiling helps the immune system work better. When you smile, immune functions work better because you are more relaxed.

6. It lowers blood pressure

Research shows that when you smile, there is a significant reduction in blood pressure.

7. It releases endorphins, serotonin, and other natural tranquilizers

Studies have shown that smiling releases these substances naturally, so don’t hesitate to use them with a smile!

8. It gives a natural facelift and makes you younger

The muscles used to smile dissipate wrinkles and make you younger.

9. It helps you stay positive

Make this easy experience: smile and try to think of something negative without losing your smile.

image © Mark Fischer on Flickr

This list might seem a bit contrary to some of the 13 Thai smiles but nonetheless the Kingdom is still known as the Land of Smiles. It’s official because the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) dubbed it as such, hoping tourists would be lured in with its promise of the extreme hospitality of the locals. Thai people are, for the most part, helpful, courteous, and kind so this is the rare advertising slogan than comes close to matching reality.

Just be prepared also that Thailand is a Land of Scams, Rip-Offs and Lies, all done with a Big Smile. Read up on the scams the country is known for and how to avoid them. If something seems too good to be true in terms of price or convenience, it probably is. Know where you are going and how to get there; when asking for directions from the average Thai person on the street, be aware that they will not risk losing status by telling you they don’t know how to get somewhere.

The Thai smile even takes to the air! Airbus A320(SL) of THAI Smile Airways on final approach to runway 01R at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) on September 9, 2015. Image by Alec Wilson on Flickr, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

That concept of losing face will be the next topic examined in Thainess. Look for it sometime in early 2023!

Try your best to keep smiling until then…

One thought on “Thainess Part 10: The Thai Smile

  1. Pingback: Sunday Summary #16 | Mark Joseph Jochim

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