Thailand is famous for its smiles, and over the years has proudly adopted the name Land of Smiles.
But how much do us foreign folk really understand about the Thai smile?
The answer is: pretty much nothing at all.
And here's why…
Thais have a built an admirable reputation for making life fun and easy-going, and the smile is a key ingredient in keeping cool and ironing out life's creases.
But if you thought the Thai smile is simply used to show a liking of something or someone, you'd be very much mistaken.
The Thai smile is far more complicated than it first appears, so much so in fact, that even a seasoned expat may misinterpret one.
This can be forgiven, because unless you have intensively studied the many variations, it's almost impossible to decipher which smile is being used in a given situation.
A Common Mistake
Perhaps the most common case of smile misinterpretation is the male tourist who assumes that every coy-looking smile he gets from a Thai female means she'd like to sleep with him.
In fact, the majority of these smiles are likely to fall into the “Oh my god! it's a foreigner, I'll just smile politely” category.
The second biggest misinterpretation is assuming that the majority of smiles are disingenuous, or ill-intentioned.
You'll often hear remarks from disgruntled bar stool dwellers like, “Careful, the smiles ain't real mate”, or, “You gotta look behind the smile, geezer”.
Well, that last remark is quite true, but not necessarily because the smile has an evil intention behind it but because you need to learn the “smile code”, so to speak.
Once you do, you'll understand this aspect of Thai culture that little bit more, and be better placed to read situations correctly.
The Thai smile has some genius behind it, in that it allows one to express a range of emotions without physically or verbally taking action.
It's a form of communication capable of tempering confrontation, easing difficult situations and showing one's appreciation.
If you really want to know what's behind a Thai smile, there are 13 unofficially documented “yim” (smiles) to decipher:
The 13 Smiles Of Thailand
1. Yim yaw / ยิ้มเยาะ
This smile can be used in two ways: Firstly, when teasing someone, and secondly when wanting to express the words “I told you so”, without actually having to be so harsh.
2. Yim cheun chom / ยิ้มชื่นชม
This smile is a controlled yet beautiful smile that expresses the words, “I admire you”, or, I’m proud of you”.
3. 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.
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.
5. Yim chuead chuean / ยิ้มเชือดเฉือน
Similar to Yim mer lessanai, but more the “Mwhahaha” bad guy smile, this would be used by a person who has gotten the upper hand over someone.
6. Yim dor dhaan / ยิ้มต่อต้าน
This smile indicates that you disagree, but will entertain the idea or go along with the action regardless. It's the “You can go ahead, but you know I disagree and that your idea isn't a good one” smile.
7. Yim sao / ยิ้มเศร้า
This is the standard smile of sadness, one that indicates someone really isn't happy.
8. 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.
9. Yim suu suu! / ยิ้มซื่อซื่อ
This is the smile of encouragement, the “You/I can do it” smile.
10. 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.
11. Yim thang nam daa / ยิ้มทั้งน้ำตา
This smile must be interpreted in context, as it can mean two different things. On one hand it can mean “I’m so happy I’m crying inside”, and on the other, given different circumstances, “I’m so sad inside, but I’m still smiling”.
12. 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”.
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.
** Taak thaai means ‘to say hello'.
Reference Source: Working With The Thais: A Guide to Managing in Thailand by Henry Holmes and Suchada Tangtongtavy.