Twelve Kinds of Smiles

By Dr. Larry Dinkins, OMF worker in Thailand

Thailand is not called the “Land of Smiles” for nothing. The grin on Thai faces has a broad range of meanings, from embarrassment to bitterness, from nervousness to sadness.

A foreigner has great difficulty in reading these nuances of meaning. That is why a pickpocket can blissfully smile at a tourist, while he deftly removes a passport from her purse. People have expressed their surprise to me after observing Thai smiling at a funeral or road accident. This is not the sign of a calloused heart, but a cultural response to shock or mourning.

Here is a sampling of some of the 12 categories of Thai smiles:

  1. Yim yae yae – Let’s not cry over spilt milk smile
  2. Yim tang nam taa – I’m so happy I’m crying smile
  3. Fuen yim – I-should-laugh-at-the-joke-though-it-is-not-funny smile
  4. Yim haeng – I-know-I-owe-you-the-money-but-I-don’t-have-it smile
  5. Yim soo – I smile-in-the-face-of-an-impossible-situation
  6. Yim mai oog – I’m-trying-to-smile-but-can’t[1]

A decline in smiles can actually be a matter of national concern. During the Afghanistan war, mental health officials were concerned about stress levels and depression in Thai society. They devised advertisements to free people from stress and called it the “smile at crisis” campaign.

Dr. Prat, who was director of the project said, “The department also plans a counseling corner in public places, with a psychiatrist to give advice to those who find it hard to smile. I don’t think Thai people will be as serious as Japanese businessmen who need to go to smile-training school.”[2]

The Thai are so serious about laughter that they hold an annual laughing contest. The entrants are judged by the originality and oddity of their laughs. Participants go through many gyrations, including foot stomping, jumping and bending over backward.

In 1998, Kawachart, a housewife, received the grand prize. She had laughed for nine minutes—the maximum allowed—and continued to do so even after she was escorted from the stage.

She said, “It pleases me to be able to make people laugh, especially at a time when so many of us are facing economic hardship.” Kawachart said that she didn’t think about anything particularly funny—mostly about herself and how silly she probably looked on stage. Her high-pitched, horse-like whinny sounded unmistakably genuine and had the crowd in stitches.[3]

I learned that laughter is indeed contagious. A seemingly innocent blooper or pratfall could easily produce a chain reaction that often ended in a crescendo of giggles and guffaws. Try as you might, it is almost impossible not to join in when the right fusion of comedic chemistry is sparked. I don’t know what my laugh-o-meter read when I was in the States, but it increased by degrees during my career in Thailand. If your “laugh-o-meter” is nearing zero, I suggest you rush down to the travel agent and say, “Book me on the next flight to ‘The Land of Smiles.’”

1) The next time you are in a group with ethnic diversity, listen carefully and notice the universal language of laughter that is being spoken.

2) How many words does English use to describe smiling?

3) Make a special effort to tap into the power of a simple smile or laugh today.

This post was excerpted from Dr. Larry Dinkins’ forthcoming book, Good Sense of Humor, Bad Sense of Smell.

[1] Holmes, Henry and Suchada Tangtong. Working With Thai: A Guide to Managing in Thailand. White Lotus Publishers, Bangkok 1995.
[2] Bangkok Post, October 15, 2001, p. 2.
[3] Pathan, Don, Associated Press, November 8, 1998.

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