Travel brochures, leaflets and guide books often refer to Thailand as the Land of Smiles. Many authors have written about their experience with smiling people in Thailand and assumed that Thais are happy people because they smile all the time even in difficult situations. It’s true that Thais smile a lot but the smiles they show cannot always be interpreted that they are happy. When smiling, facial details involving the shape of the mouth, the eyes, the eyebrows, and the nose add subtle meanings to the smiles. The meanings enable Thais to communicate non-verbally with the smiles in all kinds of situation. Smiles are used in placed of “yes”, “no”, “sawat dee”, “thank you”, “sorry”, or even “I don’t understand.” Thais, for example, don’t greet each other on a daily basis, they only smile a little when they meet. Smiles can also be used by a senior as a sign of acknowledgement and appreciation of the wai initiated by a junior.
A number of expressions beginning with the word yim “smile” are listed below together with their meanings. Some of them can be found in the Thai-Thai Dictionary 1999 compiled by the Royal Institute.
yim chaeng ‘ a broad smile’
yim haeng ‘ a dry smile’
yim koe ‘ a friendly smile which is not recognized or returned
yim yo ‘ a disdainful smile’
yim kae khoen ‘ a smile in an embarrassed situation’
With the many different meanings of smiles, miscommunication can occur even among Thais themselves. Foreigners should not take it seriously if a Thai bumps into them and smiles. The person does not think it’s fun to hurt you but always have a smile on their faces. Those who look sullen are considered unfriendly and unsociable. Those people are of course unpopular because they have a look which can be described as bok bun mai rap “rejecting the charitable contribution in invitation ” which means the person is so gloomy that even a means of merit accumulation is denied.