Lesson 2: “Thai Smile Expiration Date”
The famous Thai smile has an expiration date of about 18 months. Sometimes a little longer, often less, but it always expires. And like fresh milk, eventually it turns sour.
When we arrive in Thailand, the smiles are everywhere. Short-time tourists only see the smiles, never the long-term pattern. Long-term expats see the pattern, but they often mistake sour milk for “simple misunderstanding”. Those expats don’t understand the pattern, but the locals certainly do and they discuss it with each other.
I’m an expat, 10+ years full-time in Thailand. I read, write, and speak Thai. Not perfectly, but well enough to understand what “they” are saying.
In the West, a smile means something like: I’m happy, I’m having a good time, I like you.
Here, not like that at all. Here a smile is frequently used to cover up other behaviors: sadness, anger, frustration, mistakes, laziness, being late, etc. “Oh, am I late? I’m so, so, sorry. Really sorry. It won’t happen again.” + a big smile. And, of course, it does happen again.
Here a smile also conceals when a local is trying to “size up” a foreigner: “What can I get from this foreigner? Maybe he will rent one of my condos and I can keep his deposit when he leaves. How can I get him to rent and then leave quickly?” And they smile.
Before signing the lease: 100% smiles. Once the lease is signed and they have the security deposit, the smiles start to decline. It seems as if they actually want you to move out. Why? Because then they can keep the security deposit.
To our logical, Western minds that makes no sense. Better to have steady income month after month. But to their way of thinking they get “free money” from keeping the security deposit.
To understand any culture, we look for patterns of behavior. At work, in a family, at a social club, in a different country, the best way to understand the culture of that group is to look for patterns of behavior. Here is the pattern I’ve seen regarding rentals in Thailand:
First six months (approximate):
Second six months:
– Somewhat helpful.
– Moderately polite.
– But few smiles.
Third six months:
– Any help is slow and sullen.
– Politeness bare minimum.
– Smiles long gone.
After about 18 months, even the helpfulness has expired. By then they realize they are not going to get anything more out of you, so they don’t bother with smiles or politeness. In every place I’ve lived here, after 18 months or so, I’m mostly ignored except for minimal service like writing out a receipt when I pay the rent.
Similar behavior other situations, just different expiry times: With restaurants where I am a regular customer, smiles expire after about 3 – 4 months. (Exceptions would be some Western-owned restaurants where the owner is on site.)
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And if the foreigner speaks and understands Thai language, everything goes downhill even faster! Knowing the language means you will know some of their tricks. Or at least, you will know that they are tricky. So, there is less chance for them to take advantage, to get some of your money or other benefits. If you understand the language, instead of smiles they will be wary. Countless times local people say to me, “You speak Thai. How you know speak Thai?” Never once has anyone said that with a smile.
And they warn each other about it, too. Many times I have gotten into a taxi with my maid to go to the market. The first words out of her mouth to the driver are always (in Thai), “He my boss, not boy-fehn. He speak Thai very good.” It sounds like a compliment, doesn’t it? But the best cultural translation I can come up with is: “Don’t try tricky this foreigner. He know too mutt.”
The underlying cultural reasons why the locals lie, cheat, scam and trick constantly is a separate topic in itself. I’ve been observing many patterns about that, but will save for some future “lesson”. Here my purpose is just to “expose” the famous smile for what it is, concealment to cover up other stratagems.
I’m happy to discuss more in email with expats who have the experience and perspective of at least several years full-time here. It simply takes that long to start seeing the patterns.
The author of this article can be contacted at : [email protected]