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Learn Thai Language & Thai Culture

Learning Thai is More Than a Study of Words & Grammar – Part 1

Lanta International Language School

“Mai pen rai” means “no problem” or “no worries”…

All languages are pointers to understanding the culture of a country or nation, and the Thai language is an excellent example of this. However, it is important to understand that an awareness of the culture, is also essential in understanding how to interpret the language. The two are twined together.

Let’s take a classic phrase in the Thai language as an example. Most visitors to Thailand leave with the familiar ring of “mai pen rai” in their minds. Literally translated this means “no problem” or “no worries”, and it is common for first time visitors to Thailand to think something along the lines of, “Wow, these people are amazing, nothing is a problem to them! They are so laid back, nothing worries them!”

On the face of it, this is, in many ways, true. The Thai people see intense emotions such as anger as a weakness, and do not like to lose face. It is important to them to be able to cope with situations calmly, and many would say this is an excellent asset, and indeed an element of the Thai culture which visitors find extremely appealing. Yet in truth, it is important to realise that sometimes there is a problem, and sometimes it’s a big one.

Thai people can be really angry and upset, even though they say “mai pen rai”. You can find out weeks later that what they really meant was something different. This can give rise to many misunderstandings when westerners react by saying “but you said so”, or, “but you told me that it didn’t matter”, when the Thai person has obviously grown furious.

For accurate interpretation of the Thai language, it is important to understand that it is a “HIGH CONTEXT” language, whereas Western languages tend to be of “LOW CONTEXT”.

In a high context language true meaning of what is being communicated can be established not just by the words and their meaning (as in low context languages), but also by the body language of the speaker, by what is NOT being said, and what should be understood without mentioning it (in this context) etc.

In the situation described above, the Thai person will have very clearly expressed what he/she wanted or meant, but not with words. A Thai counterpart would have understood, but as westerners listen more to the words than the context, a big misunderstanding may well have occurred, even though both people were correct according to their own culture.

To understand the Thai language, look deeper…

In order to gain a sound grasp of the Thai language it is essential to look deeper into the culture, and into the way things are said. You may learn from a book that “mai pen rai” literally means “no problem”, however holding conversations with Thai people, listening to Thai people, watching Thai people, reading between the lines, and being advised on cultural differences will provide you with a greater ability to understand what a Thai person really means. Or, to put it simply, if a Thai person is not smiling when they say “mai pen rai”, then generally there IS a problem….

Tina Gibbons
Lanta International Language School

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14 Comments

  1. Catherine and Tina, an excellent insight into what I at first thought was an explanation of the deeper complexities of learning Thai. After a second read I can now see it is in fact help in making the learning process that little easier. Body language is obviously much more important to notice in a language whose race like to keep their emotions in check when possible. Your final summing up “Or, to put it simply, if a Thai person is not smiling when they say “mai pen rai”, then generally there IS a problem,” explains it in the simplest of terms.

  2. Martyn, Agreed. And after I read Tina’s article, I thought back over different conversations I’ve had recently with Thais, and pinpointed the different moods threading through the conversation.

    So I guess there is an additional plus to being a women, as I remember most conversations in detail (something that drives the man in the house batty ;-)

    When I first got here, everyone seemed so happy smiley. But that is no longer the case as I’ve assimilated the smiles and gone beyond them. Trying to figure out what heats up a conversation is taking more time.

    There is the easy one, of course – never correct or show doubt towards someone of perceived authority.

    Oh, and the one about compliments. I’ll fallen down on that one a few times.

  3. I’ve no doubt that the Thai race go through the same daily emotions as us all. Joy, doubt, anger, jealousy, anger, amazement etc but the mask makes it all that harder to detect. Flipping the coin over, do you think that when a Thai person converses in English the mask remains or whether the switch to low context language is complete. I believe that the latter is more true which gives us all hope of completing the opposite transition ourselves.

  4. Martyn, You’ve made a good point. So there is hope for me yet? :-)

    Just like for us, the Thai people I know who speak English are varied in their personalities. And again, my relationship with each is varied so there is that too.

    And when they are proficient in English, I’m not trying to guess so much from the conversation, so right there is more of an understanding and less likelihood of a misunderstanding.

    But in thinking about it further… in a way, I don’t find some of the masks that the English speaking Thais wear that much different than the British ones. Or the American for that matter.

    How many people do you know put on a polite demeanour with someone they dislike? Only to turn around after that person has gone, to go on about their immense dislike? And while what they are saying is correct and polite, their body language may not be. Tight lips. A fake smile maybe.

    And then there is that culture thing… when President Kennedy was shot, the Japanese people were saddened. But what disturbed the expats living there was the physical response from the Japanese. You see, when some Japanese are surprised or upset, they smile. And when they smiled in response to Kennedy’s death, the response from the expats living there was one of shock, anger and sometimes sadness.

    I haven’t looked into it, but what do Thais do that is similar? That we might be misinterpreting?

  5. To clarify this point – ‘But in thinking about it further… in a way, I don’t find some of the masks that the English speaking Thais wear that much different than the British ones. Or the American for that matter’.

    While I do agree with what you meant, that English speaking Thais are less likely to use a mask in communication, I do see everyone – British, American, Canadian, etc – as having masks.

    It’s just that some cultures use masks more than others.

    In the Western culture, those taking it too far are called two-faced. In Thai culture it’s all about not causing hurt feelings or loss of face.

    Ok, there is more to it than that… there is greng jai…

  6. I don’t see anything particularly novel about ไม่เป็นไร (mai ben rai) not always being meant literally.

    In English there are plenty of phrases that when literally parsed sound nice enough, but can mean lots of different things, depending on how/why they’re said. I’ve never taken ไม่เป็นไร too literally, it seems akin to “oh, it’s fine” or “don’t worry about it” which can be sincere (or *not*) in English.

    I’m not disputing the main point though; I’ve heard Japanese described as a “high context” language, although that term wasn’t used.

  7. Some expats do worry that the Thais are a mai ben rai culture (just as you said, ‘don’t worry about it’) as it is used to brush off so much. But I agree with you, it is not that simple, and is being used here to make a point.

  8. Btw Abbie, every once in awhile I peek to see your progress on your blog. You must be excited at how great you are doing :-)

  9. I think “exciting” is the right word. I’m continually amazed by how much I can comprehend reading… but I’m also continually amazed by how little I comprehend listening. It’s a pretty stark difference. I’m working specifically on my internal pronunciation but I really need to start speaking it regularly. I’m pretty introverted/shy/anti-social and getting over that is obviously a necessary task.

  10. Good, I thought ‘exciting’ was correct. I go to your blog when I want a lift because you are always blowing me away. So I wasn’t sure if I was projecting my own feelings.

    ‘introverted/shy/anti-social’

    That is me totally and it is a problem. I’m past the point where I must do something to jerk myself out of it but I’m still here, being a hermit.

  11. Hi Abbie, Martyn, Cat & anyone else following

    I’ve been pondering on the comments about some western cultures wearing just as much a mask with their “politeness”, as the Thais do with their “high context” language.

    It’s a complex subject, and one that I’ve tried to simplify in the article, using the most common expression as an example… mai pen rai was the most obvious example to use because it is so well known to many…and it causes so many frustrations… but it is just one example…

    I think the main difference between the high context language of the Thais and the “politeness” of westerners – is that the Thai people tend to expect you to understand what they really mean. As far as they are aware – they have communicated what they really mean – but in a different way. If you then behave in a way which demonstrates that you took their words literally, and actually didn’t understand them at all – they can actually get quite angry (if you’re close enough). With westerners we generally tend to totally hide what we really think, and wouldn’t expect someone to understand that although we said it was ok, it actually wasn’t ok at all… So if someone demonstrated that they had taken our words literally – we wouldn’t be so inclined as to get angry – more likely we would think that it was our fault for not communicating that there was in fact a problem…

    At least that’s my experience…(being English!), but I guess even western cultures can differ quite considerably.

    I hope that makes sense?

  12. Tina, it is complex and great fun to think about at the same time. I’m going to try what you suggested in the coming weeks to see how it works. Not to intentionally upset anyone, but to see if I can get a minor response. And I’ll ask my Thai teacher if that is what she is getting from me too. She’s pretty aware of the differences so it’ll be interesting.

  13. Now that’s an idea Cat. We could really have fun with this. I’m in England at the moment, so I can try and see what happens here… I’ll ask Paula at the language school to notify me of any examples she experiences :-)

  14. Ah, Paula being at the language school is perfect. I’ll ask around here as I know quite a few expats working for Thai companies. And the British, well, I haven’t figured them out either (although ‘Watching the English’ did have a lot of ah ha’s :-) so I’ll be looking forward to seeing what you come up with in the UK.

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