The Mask or How to Rearrange Your Face Without Plastic Surgery
As most readers would have noticed I've been writing my Somchai / Lurchai satires with some regularity, partly because I enjoy writing them and partly as a social commentary on Thai culture.
I was tempted to do the same with the subject of the “Thai smile” but then I thought, bugger it; this deserves a more straightforward approach.
Like I wasn't going to say things which may go over some people's heads, I wanted to be crystal clear on this.
I used to live in Thailand and managed to get along fine with most everybody. Before I moved there I visited several times a year on business ever since 1980.
I'm just giving this background info to indicate that I have 30 years of interaction with Thais and expats over there and never made any enemies.
One of the most difficult things about social interaction with Thais was that you couldn't take them at face value.
Since I'm going to discuss the SMILE and it's specifically a facial issue, let's understand what we're talking about here.
A smile is a reflection of your emotional reaction to events. In the West you can expect people to smile / laugh when something is funny, witty, hilarious and when something pleasant happens to you.
Conversely your face shows anguish when you're sad, upset, in pain etc. I could go on about anger, surprise and a gamut of other emotions.
In other words your face shows involuntary reactions to different actions. A mirror to your feelings.
Of course sometimes we try to hide our emotions, some people call this a POKER face. A poker face shows no emotions, it's a mask.
In Thailand they replaced the POKER face with a SMILE. And here lies the rub.
Once you realise this you can't trust a Thai smile. I mean you got to be able to virtually read their minds to know whether they mean it or not. You can do this to some extent by putting it in context of the situation arising. Like a car accident (if you're lucky and they hadn't fled the scene) where some may smile as they're embarrassed or nervous.
Sometimes if they try a scam they'll smile not only when they're trying it on you but also when they get found out.
I'm sure a lot of you when in Thailand experienced having people smile at you when you considered it inappropriate, like getting a traffic ticket or waiting to get service in the Land Office when a VIP comes in and gets preferential treatment.
This habit of smiling at a drop of a hat comes from being a Thai toddler and being trained to smile on demand. Later on when you go to school (and I've seen this) and get the cane it's required of you to smile and wai to the teacher.
The Thai social system demands a smile irrespective of your feelings. What we have is a pretend scenario where you must conform to what's been a long tradition of subservience.
Let me be crude for a second and say it loud – you're supposed to take it up the arse and smile and cop it!
So now let me come to farangs who decide to settle in Thailand. Not tourists, they can do whatever they like (and do), here today gone tomorrow.
Farangs who want to live there and “prosper” are required to conform to the smiling regime.
You've got to be a strong character to do otherwise. On the other hand you have to be a good character actor to smile when you don't feel like it.
Smiling is only the first compromise to your character if you want to assimilate. You may need to compromise on your core values too, such as democracy, fair play, legal recourse and rights etc.
So the question is to what extent are you willing to sell your soul?
This depends to some degree on your financial situation. If you're in Thailand because of the considerable cheaper cost of living compared to your home country you'll probably grin and bear it.
Principles can go out the window especially when you might end up on skid row back home. Being an alien and without rights may follow as does kow towing to Authority. The list goes on and on.
But hey, a plate of rice and a bit of Thai stew will fill the belly and the climate is hot too so you won't need woollens. There's lot to be said for Thailand and most of it revolves around money.
Ah and one other thing, even if you smile but you have no money you won't get far. Money is what brings a real smile to Thai people's faces. No have? Tough titty!
Very nicely put and oh so true. This is an article that everyone could benefit from reading.