Thai Facial Expressions: Why the Weakness Outburst is Okay but Confidence is not

More interview questions from Gemma Font about Thai way of expressions!

1. How are you supposed to behave when a person or family invites you at their home? (i.e. are you supposed to bring a gift?

First thing, I must take my shoes off if there is a vibe of ‘please leave your shoes outside’ before entering!

I have a few experiences of visiting someone else’s houses. Most of the time it was a spontaneous visit without prior notice so I couldn’t have a chance to prepare gift for the house owners. My friends just happened to feel like taking me a tour to their house “Hey! Beau! Come over my house!” — yeah, and I met their parents and wai-ed them and their parents may invite me for dinner or let me have their leftover in the fridge.

Suppose that I were invited to visit a not-so-close acquaintance’s family, I would dress properly and might take some gifts although it’s not necessary. Gift is not demanded for a visit. I presume that the house owners just expect the guests to show sign of some gratitude e.g. praising their cooking skills, playing with their cute pet, being appreciative to the surrounding around their house like woooww your garden is awesome! Your antique clock is cool! What does your eldest daughter do now, graduated yet? Showing interpersonal care is a good manner.

When I was a CouchSurfing host, I found myself to have some sense of expectation towards gifts from guests. It should not need to have high value. It can be anything that I cannot seek in my local area. For example, I am a Central Thai so a jar of “Namprik Noom” (Northern Style Green Chilli Paste) from Chiangmai will be loved. If I were going to visit someone in the Northeast, I would take our popular localised pomelo to the hosts.

2. Which are the good manners related to the physical contact?

Just do not kiss! Not even cheek kissing!

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No, no, no, just NO.

3. How much space is it appropriate to keep when talking with a person?

Approximately 80-120 centimetres. When on an escalator, please remind yourself to have one step of the stair unoccupied to leave some space with the person in front of you.

4. Is it appropriate to touch the interlocutor while having a conversation or is it better to keep a distance?

Hmm, this must have something to do with the overall Asian culture thing. For the most part, Asians are not prone to be touchy as hinted by Chinese bowing, Japanese bowing, Korean bowing, Thai Wai-ing, etc. Touching with the interlocutor whom you meet for the first time will not be a common sight. Depends. If you met that interlocutor in an alcohol-infiltrated bar, you would become beyond the touchy level with a person you just met for the first time, lol. Depends. Girl touches girl on the first meeting is deemed acceptable ( and cute ❤ )

To be clear, if I were asked to meet the owner of these interview questions for the first time, I am sure not to do further touching apart from greeting hug.

5. Which is the normal etiquette in Thai society? (i.e. How are you supposed to dress in daily life?)

Do you mean ‘dressing’ etiquette? Please narrow down the purpose of question.

The rule of thumb of normal dressing etiquette is “DO NOT EXPOSE TOO MUCH BODY SKIN TO THE PUBLIC”. For women, cleavage is loved by me. No, sorry, lol. Tops that show your cleavage will make you a topic of public interest. Skirts which the rim is only 10 centimetres longer than what is between your legs (Awww, can anyone suggest me better vocabularies?) will induce a new nickname for you as slutty.

Go to beaches and you will spot Thai tourists in a mile. They usually appear in shirt and shorts swimming in the sea. Bikini wearers are very few and you might see them in Farang-majority beaches. They feel it is inappropriate to wear 2 pieces even when they are quite away from the “local people” beaches. If you went to Cha Am, Bang San — as I would call “local” beaches — and happened to see some Caucasian women in Bikini, Thai beach goers would not take a damn about those “inappropriate” wearers because they are “outsiders” and outsiders do not blend in “our” culture. But if a Thai did, others would cast the eyes of “This slut is calling for attention”.

Recently at Koh Phangan, a Caucasians-majority beach, I wore bikini with my friend because it dried quickly and it was more practical for swimming. We got catcalls from Asian-looking people (We couldn’t identify if they were Thai locals or workers from nearby countries) while Caucasian women did not.

That is a colonial mindset. Locals subject to Caucasians and regard them as an exception because they dare not interfere with them, lol.

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Yep, with hat.

6. Is there any difference between man and woman?

In which aspect? Dressing? To keep short, men can go topless in a casual environment. Women cannot.

7. Do young people include western trends in their clothes?

We would never imagine to keep up with the Victorian era western trend on a daily basis while we do not wear traditional Thai clothes either. The modern clothes nowadays are heavily influenced by Korean and Japanese clothing trends (although 80% are actually Made in China, lol.) People also follow the look from Vogue, Elle, Cosmopolitan, you-name-it magazines and chase hi-end designer products. Well, this happens mostly among people who want to keep classy look, I guess. I also pick some hi-end designer products after I have proved that its style, design and utilitarian functions are what I really look for and can’t find a substitute elsewhere.

I don’t tend to follow Korean look because my physical features are not aligned to be able to pursue it. I myself am, admittedly, Japanized. I did cosplay. Currently, I am over 20 but I still wear short skirt with shirts that imitate Japanese student uniforms. I am happy to dress like a 14-year-old girl. The look I can best fit is Mori girls. I am more comfortable with Japanese makeup look and self cute-ification is my pastime entertainment. I’d rather be cute and young than hot and classy.

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I dress like this
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Mori girl

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More girls in gang

Bottom line, there are people who follow western dressing trends but the majority seems to prefer the idealistic Asian ‘cute and young’ look.

8. How do you think the meaning of facial expressions vary from westerners? In what way?

In most part of Asia, showing anger is synonymous with meanness and ridiculousness. In Thailand, if you blocked someone’s way at the train’s exit because you were too preoccupied with your phone, that person may not poke you and directly ask you to get off your way. Surely, people would ask you as politely as possible although they were pissed and wanted to hurl you off the platform. Their face, too, would appear apologetic as if it was not you who was the problem, it was they who “disturbed” to request for your approval to get the way from “you”. People would say “Excuse me, could I have my way?” (Khor thot ka/krab, khor thaang noi krab/ka) Imagine the same scenario in NY or London or other western cities, having people give you both middle fingers and the F word might be imaginable. Because, as I discussed about this with a UK person, you who blocks someone else’s way is the perpetuator for violating someone else’s right of public space so you deserve the F word.

In Thailand, facial expression of sensitivity or sympathy is encouraged to be expressed. Showing emotional bonding in public sphere is positive. I visited a foundation for underprivileged kids and internally I felt deep but my facial expression was not obvious. There is a term to define why I look like that in this “INTJ Death Glare Explained”. Emotional expression is my personal Achilles Heel. I was in my head reckoning the ways I could help them, the way I could boost public awareness towards that problem, the long-term solutions that would ensure them sustainable happiness, etc. Afterwards, I was gossiped that I was cold and did not have genuine empathy for the underprivileged as I did not show it on my face.

As emotional bonding was just addressed above, there was an emotion-laden activity for staff in a scholarship camp I must attend annually. All staff were sat in circle, lit cradles, sang songs, and were aroused to ‘open up their feeling’. The main topic was about how staff were so deeply bonded during the 4-day event and they didn’t want to be apart or end the activity. Then, the sobbing, hugging, caressing was spread like a plague! If those emotional expressions were a plague, I would be the only person who was immune or vaccinated. Whaaaaaaaaaat! 4 Days! You cried! You hugged! Unbelievable! Okay, I had good memory with all of you but 4 days and hugged and sobbed and bonded like they couldn’t be apart was…… an awkward moment for me. After that, the most senior staff called me in and investigated what was wrong with me. Why didn’t I engage in that emotionally laden arena? Did I have any problem with anyone? No. I didn’t have problems with anyone. I just couldn’t feel that much deeply, sorry.

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Crying could be falling into the above category of sensitivity expression. Rigidity is not highly admired here while tenderness especially for men is quite approvable. The phrase “Men’s tear” (Nam Taa Luk Phuu Chaai) is a form of validation to grant men spaces for emotional outlet. Some people may perceive men crying in public as sissy but the overall is “That man needs a break and support so we should let him vent” sort of thing. You can silently cry on the BTS drowning in an agony of breakup, people may glance at you a bit but you will not be bothered or corrected by intrusive moral polices.

Tearful face can be interpreted as appreciation and gratitude. The King’s celebrations might be an example. You will see the public cry because people are so appreciative with the holy presence of the King. If you don’t cry while others are doing, some radical royalists may generalize that you are a political opposite….

Face of envy is damned. A visible evidence is a TV show “The Face Thailand”. In the recent season, there was a slightest scene when Gina — probably the most talented amateur model in that season — had a face in which audiences presumed as a ‘sneering’ and ‘envious’ face towards another peer participant. Despite her gregarious, generous and funny personality, the internet was wild! Compare it with The Face UK in Naomi Campbell version; participants shouting, giving fingers and showing hostile faces will terrify Thai audiences for sure, hehe.

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Gina

Face that emits a blast of self-confidence may irritate some people. In The Voice Thailand first season, there was a talented contestant during the battle round who overly outperformed the opponent on the stage. That was deemed as ‘too competitive’. Competitiveness is equivalent in meaning to aggressiveness. Those who are competent but do not ‘save face’ of others will be quickly hated. Most comments were in this pattern: “Kob (his name) just wants to bullshit the other contestant. We audiences and the judges would rather prefer the inferior but humble to a talented but a show-off. He doesn’t corporate with the inferior. He is not humble and he is overconfident to win over everyone.” The judge/his coach sentenced him to fail that battle.

Period

I found this comment somewhere:

“Hey, isn’t the show meant to be a talent competition? It is not a courtesy contest for noblemen. If you want manner, go find it in Thai traditional manner contests at temple fares.” (Me: 555)

9. Does this society use lots of facial expressions? Or do they tend to have a straight face?

Already explained above that the positive faces are encouraged while negative faces are ridiculed.

10. How do they move in the public space? (i.e. when you find an older person in a bus they have priority to take a sit, when they cross a room they walk crouched…)

If you mean the ‘priority seats’ found on public transport with a sign of a person with a walking stick, chances are the seats will be taken and not given to the real elder. Passengers will not care if the sign is above their head as long as there are not ‘clearly’ elderly people nearby. Although there are, it is like drawing lots if that person will have enough spirit to give them a seat or not. I observe that, most of the time, it is men who give the seat to the elder while women here just do not care because they tend to be withdrawn in their ‘female privilege’ (They demand men to give them seats or men will be called non-chivalrous whilst demanding women equality. Yet, some healthy women may not even give the seat to the other pregnant woman who is right in front of them, lol.)

I crouched when elderly people whom I associate with walk pass. The crouching is supposed to be done within the circles of a Thai’s acquaintances.

11. What is the right way to show gratitude?

Hmmm, visit them and not be their burden. It’s not definite to define how someone would show gratitude because each family has different demands and conditions.

Sending monthly allowance for parents or the elderly is an example. In a country where pensionary benefits for the 60+ years old people is undependable and the amount is close to dust, sending money to them means a practical way of caring. In rural areas, the tradition of full-grown kids being expected to send money to parents is still normally practiced. Anyway, my family doesn’t expect that children and grandchildren should send money and if someone does, the money might be declined although it’s appreciated. My grandma’s only purpose is to see her dear kids warmly united and have family time together. Paying a visit and taking her for occasional comfort and entertainment is sufficient. All of my cousins and I bought her supplementary food and facilitating stuff e.g. massaging chair and automatic wheelchair, took her for health check, fed her good meal, took her to travel with optimum comfort and convenience, etc.

Why is the money offer declined? I calculate that it is a sense of Kreng Jai. Old people especially my grandma do not want to ‘disturb’ or to be a burden to their children. They don’t want children to splurge their money on them.

Scenario: Taking grandma to a fine restaurant.

Grandma: “Why do you come here? Go back, go back. I don’t want to eat.”
Me/Cousins: “Just one time! I take you here because I do it for you!”
Grandma: “This place is no special.”
Me/Cousins: “It’s the best. Don’t complain. It’s my care.”
Grandma: *while ordering* “Go back, go back! How on earth can a bowl of porridge cost almost 100 baht! That’s insane. Go back, go back.”
Grandma: *while eating* “The food is no special. It’s not that tasteful.”
Me/Cousins: “Don’t worry. We are eating it for free. It’s not our money (in fact, it’s ours). I get a voucher from my company. And I will get points or money back from eating it.”
Grandma: *showing a face of satisfaction with a little grin* “I approve.”

12. Is it correct to give a gift? Will they accept it?

No doubt, they appreciate it. Repeat the example above.

13. Which are the most usual gifts for the elderly?

Haha, when it comes to “family visit” festivals, TV ads and supermarket promotions head to bottled edible bird’s nest soup and crappy-tasting dark chicken extract (it’s called soup…) It is perhaps a marketing scheme that penetrates into consumers’ perception that these foods are a part of gratitude.

Another stuff you can think of is a basket of fruit especially oranges. I guess orange has a cultural meaning in Chinese context because orange is an indispensable element to be presented on a Wai Jao table but I don’t know what it is.

Other usual gifts I can think of are high calcium low-fat dairy product, supplementary, mountain ginseng, ginger soup, stew mushroom soup.

/ END

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