Thirteen Types of Thai Smile

After one and a half years living in Thailand, I still find the multi-layer Thai culture complex and baffling. What you see is not what you get. With each experience, there is something new to discover. Thailand is where you want to be to cultivate lifelong learning. I bet you don’t get this from travel guide book yo.

Being a Malaysian myself, I think it’s the way most Asian people are. We are known all over the world for our strong cultural values. But then, I am a ‘chinese banana’, yellow on the outside, white on the inside. For the uninitiated, it means a Chinese who doesn’t really understand nor follow most of our heritage. 

As someone who takes pride in efficiency and being a clear and transparent communicator, someone who dot the i’s and cross the t’s, the complex environment here is like walking on thin ice. I adopt linear communication style. A yes is a yes, a no is a no, a maybe is a maybe. Here, if it’s a “no”, it may not be voiced out. Instead, it is being expressed in less direct terms; the birth of 13 types of situational-smile.

Die lah like that. In addition to language struggle, we also need to master the art of reading between the line smile. Macam mana? How lah like that? This is not our current skillset wei. Smiling often means agreement or approval, no? Welcome to Thailand, the ‘Land of Smiles’. In Thailand, it can mean embarrassment or lack of understanding. Okay lah, if we see this in a positive light, a smile is better than a frown. At least it’s aesthetically pleasant to the eyes.

Relationship is above all in Thailand. Building relationship is vital before doing business. My ex-CFO once said that I focus in getting good works done. In a business world, perhaps it can be considered as career suicide for not rubbing shoulders with the right people. But hey, I am a media professional, not a GRO. 

According to Working With The Thais: A Guide to Managing in Thailand, the ‘top 13’ identified Thai Smiles are as below. Many of the smiles that Thais perform are used to relieve tension, calm nerves, seek forgiveness or omission from distressing situations.

1. Yim thang nam taa: The “I’m-so-happy-I’m-crying” smile.

2. Yim thak thaai: The “polite” smile for someone you barely know.

3. Yim cheun chom: The “I-admire-you” smile.

4. Fuen yim: The stiff smile, also known as the “I-should-laugh-at-the-joke-though-it’s-not-funny” smile.

5. Yim mee lessanai: The smile which masks something wicked in your mind.

6. Yim yaw: The teasing, or “I-told-you-so” smile.

7. Yim yae-yae: The “I-know-things-look-pretty-bad-but-there’s-no-point in-crying-over-spilt-milk” smile.

8. Yim sao: The sad smile.

9. Yim haeng: The dry smile, also known as the “I-know-I-owe-you-the-money-but I-don’t-have-it” smile.

10. Yim thak thaan: The “I-disagree-with-you” smile, also known as the “You-can-go-ahead-and-propose-it-but-your idea’s-no-good” smile.

11. Yim cheua-cheuan: The “I-am-the-winner” smile, the smile given to a losing competitor.

12. Yim soo: “smile-in-the-face-of-an-impossible-struggle” smile.

13. Yim mai awk: The “I’m-trying-to-smile-but-can’t” smile.


A novice of ’13 types of Thai smile’ in the making. (Sangkhlaburi, Thailand, 2009)
In this new environment with so much dos and dont’s, and ‘what you see is not what you get’, it’s sink or swim, so swim lah. Not a good swimmer, so bring it on so that I can be better.