Smiles and Polite Body Language

Thai Culture Information

Do practice your smile: Smiling is consider one of the trademarks of the Thai people – this is, after all, The Land of Smiles. Thais tend to smile about anything.

You may find it a bit odd at first to have complete strangers smiling at you on the bus, in a restaurant or passing on the street. But to Thais, smiling is a friendly, quiet, Thai way to say hello.

So smile back; it’s polite and it will make you feel happier and more relaxed, too.

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Dos

Do try to curb your body language: Thais may smile a lot, but they use body language far more subtly than Westerners and many other people do. If you wave your arms about or waggle your head around, Thais will consider it a puad hua – a headache – to look at. In Thai culture one keeps one’s feelings – of love or hate, enthusiasm or boredom – to oneself. Thais believe that you will have fewer problems this way.

Do use your right hand to give and receive objects: As in many other Asian countries, Thais consider the right hand to be cleaner than the left (which is the one used to clean up in the toilet). To be really polite when receiving or giving something, use your right hand, and use the left to touch the right elbow from underneath, as if gently supporting it.

Don'ts

Don’t use your feet for anything but walking: Don’t use your foot to point at something, to move something – opening or closing a door, for example – or to stop something from moving. In particular, do not use your feet to stop a dropped coin or banknote from getting away. Thai coins and banknotes all carry an image of HM the King, who is revered by all Thais. Thais find it highly offensive when people stamp on this image, even innocently. So if you drop a coin or banknote, bend down and retrieve it with your hand.

Don’t put your feet up: When sitting on chairs with Thais, especially those older than you, keep your feet on the ground. If you are sitting on the ground, note that is impolite for women to sit cross-legged. If you are a woman, sit with both legs to one side, knees together and feet tucked back as close to the body as possible – in other words, away from the people you are with. In the wat, in the presence of monks, this is the way that both men and women sit.

Don’t stand over people, especially your seniors: You may be standing talking with a senior Thai when they decide to sit down. Don’t remain standing; sit down too. In Thai and many other Asian cultures, the head is considered the most important part of the body, so towering over someone else’s head is rude, especially if that person is older or of higher social standing. If there is nowhere to sit, then stand back a bit, and try to stand in a deferential way. Hands together, right over left, in front of your zipper is a good way to achieve this. Forget your parents’ shoulders-back-and-chest-out rule; it’s not appropriate in this situation.

by Rungtip Hongjakpet Izmen

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