A Smile is NOT the Same in Every Language

If you grew up in the 1990s, you were likely to see a popular poster in school that boasted images of different kinds of ethnicities holding hands, surrounding a globe (in traditional dress too no less), smiling. The word words on the top of the picture read ‘A Smile is the Same in Every Language.’ In my youth, I was inclined to believe it and went on my tooth grinning way. Well friends, I’m here now to tell you, that sign, is complete bullshit.

Google couldn't help me find the poster, so I made one. You feel inspired now, don't you?

Well, at least in Thailand it is. According to Webster, smile can be defined as: (verb) form one’s features into a pleased, kind, or amused expression, typically with the corners of the mouth turned up and the front teeth exposed. As we know, Thailand is called the ‘Land of Smiles’ given how often people see teeth exposure on faces here. So that must mean Thais are expressing a pleased or amused emotion right?

Wrong. Thais smile when they’re happy, sad, angry, frustrated, embarrassed, without emotion,  overwhelmed with emotion, need I go further? Not that they’re not happy most of the time. Of the places I’ve traveled thus far, Thais are, on average, the most happy-go-lucky, let-things-roll-off-their-back people I’ve ever met. I’m constantly greeted with smiles and waves that I feel like I’m in an Andy Griffith episode. It’s nice. The thing is though, I don’t think it’s my astonishing wit that is cracking people up when I answer their question of what I ate for breakfast this morning.

The most smiling I encounter is the type when people are uncomfortable with me. Most rural Thais are just not at ease with a farang around. Purple alien. Awkward more to have one that speaks the language because you can’t talk about them as freely. (Not that it stops them, people generally talk about me while I’m standing there more than they actually do with me.) Uneasy to have more than a perfunctory conversation because of the effort it takes for both of us (me to understand their words, them to comprehend my Thai). Or when students see me and jump while calling out and then giggle as they run away from me. (Because that doesn’t make me feel like a behemoth or anything.) Or I’m talking to someone about something quite direct, they’re nodding, smiling, and saying yes, I understand. Then I ask them a question about what I said to them and they have no idea what to say.

A lot of the forced and multi-emotive smiling is to do with greng-jai and ‘saving face.’ Thais are big believers in preserving social harmony, especially for those older and higher up in the hierarchy, making sure no one’s feelings are outwardly hurt. This goes on both sides of not saying something mean as to ‘break face’ with someone. Or if someone does go too far and offends you and/or others, you smile at the time, but when you’re in a smaller group or with people who you’re close with, discussion ensues about the other person’s faux pas.

For example, one time, I was telling a joke in Thai to the other teachers in my school. It was pretty corny and I’d told it before to other friends with much applause and understanding. I thought it would have the same effect and it seemed to as everyone was laughing along with me. When I got to the punch line and did a sort of tada ending, they laughed again. And then I heard one say to the other, ‘did you understand that’ and the other snickered as they said ‘nope’.

The other teachers were greng-jai-ing (how’s that for Thaiglish?) me by laughing and nodding along with me as I spoke despite not understanding what I was saying to them. They wanted me to feel good that my joke was funny and amused them. But this can get you into some sticky situations.

My first time coming back from Bangkok via public transportation, I followed the advice of my guesthouse owner and went to the bus station they told me to. First mistake. Without any luck of finding my van on my own, I asked sellers at the bus station, they surely must know where I should go right? They directed me to a ticket stand and I thanked them profusely for their help. The person at the stand said this other stand was actually better for where I wanted to go. I was nervous, but these were employees of the bus station, I decided to trust their judgment. Second mistake. I’d like to insert here, that I asked five different people, all employees of the bus station/companies, and they all assured me, smiling and nodding, that the bus I was getting on did in fact go to my town.

It did not. The closest it took me was about 80 kms away and by the time I did figure this out, there was no public transportation available that could help me retrace my steps home. Naturally, I was freaking out just a tad. Here I was, the first time out of the shelter of Peace Corps and my town and I was more than a little stranded.

But this is where greng-jai comes full circle. And a dash of nam-jai too. The nice brother-sister pair that were sitting in front of me that recognized that the bus did not go to my town, invited me into their home for refreshments, and then made the 160km roundtrip to take me home. They were worried for my safety/wellbeing and wanted me to be happy, so they did all of this for a complete stranger without asking or accepting a thing in return. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that day and the amazing-ness that is Thai people (not that anyone would let me either, I was teased about it endlessly and imagine I still will be when I go back and visit).

So 1990s childhood stars, you realize now how futile it is to listen to  motivational posters… especially that one with the frog that is half way down the bird’s throat and reads ‘Never give up.’ Yeah, you’re more creepy than inspiring my drive for excellence. I had to travel several thousand miles across the planet to debunk this one, but it’s not really about location this time but context (context, context) and culture. So be subversive and ignore those generic posters. Take a note from Mona Lisa and add some mysterious Thai-ness to your smile today.

Happy Leap Year!


5 thoughts on “A Smile is NOT the Same in Every Language

  1. I think it should be noted that Americans, Brits and others also smile for those reasons like the Thais. We smile when happy and what not, but also smile when embarrassed, unsure and even mad JM

    • Yes, that is true. I’m really awkward when I’m embarrassed and add in an enormous amount of airy giggles. It’s not cute. But I think the difference in Thailand though is the ‘kind’ of smile that happens here. I think the different emotions with smiles in the West are much more obvious than in Asian countries. I feel like it’s taken me a while to get to know certain people and students before I understand when they are laughing because they think something is funny versus when they don’t understand me.

      • Oh ok, cool. Interesting stuff. I like the post quite a bit. I took a class and the teacher talked about ‘the smile’ for about two weeks…interesting stuff. Her idea was the same as yours…that smiles aren’t understood as the same every where in the world. I will be in Tokyo very soon to work, and will hopefully (or hopefully not) experience these awkward and unsure smiles.

      • While I’m not sure as much about Japanese culture, I know how well received smiles are here. Tokyo is a major city and I’m sure the company you’re working with has had experiences with foreigners before. I’d be interested to hear more of what you learned in your class! Enjoy yourself in Tokyo! I’m jealous!

  2. I’m here in Thailand .. Just Googled A smile is .. & up came “A Smile is NOT…….. ” . I wanted to post a collage of smiley people with the “A smile is the same in every language” blurb …. I don’t speak the language but find that a smile works perfectly for me in the village where I’m living… Fortunately I don’t need to get on the bus 🙂 Interesting blog

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