When you meet a Thai person for the first time and engage in conversation you may be surprised by the directness of some of the questions. What may be considered impolite or nosey in your home country is often perfectly normal in Thailand. Don’t be offended by questions about age, marital status or what job you do; these are questions that Thai people may also ask of each other and aren’t considered intrusive. It doesn’t mean that you have to give a completely truthful answer if you’d rather not say. Instead, you can always adopt the very Thai trait of the sidestep answer. If you’d prefer not to let somebody know that you are in fact 42-years-old, you can just say, ‘I’m older than 21’ or ‘it’s a secret’ or ‘I’m not telling’. If the reply is made with a smile it will demonstrate that you are not offended and nobody loses face. Whatever your reply, don’t be annoyed because the person asking the question is just trying to be polite.
As an overseas visitor to Thailand you may be asked lots of different questions, but the most common ones are listed below. It could be a woman working at a bar in Phuket asking you the questions or it could be an elderly person on the train. Whoever is doing the asking is following a standard pattern of Thai small talk. They might be genuinely interested in your answers (in the case of the elderly person) or they might just be asking out of routine (in the case of the woman at the bar), but the answers should still be made politely. When speaking in Thai, the polite words khap or ka would normally be placed at the end of each question and answer, although this may sometimes be dropped once the conversation develops.
What is your name? (Khun cheu arai?)
It may take a few attempts before your name is pronounced correctly. Some names are easier for Thai people to pronounce than others. For instance, the letter ‘R’ is often pronounced as an ‘L’ so ‘Roy’ can become ‘Loy’. Don’t forget that this works both ways and when you try and pronounce the Thai person’s name you may also struggle so it’s often a good ice-breaker. Thai people address each other by their first name (or given nickname) and this is often preceded with the polite title of ‘khun’ so that the aforementioned Roy would become ‘khun Roy’ which is the equivalent of saying Mr Roy. This may even happen in hotels and guest houses where the receptionist checking you in may have you listed by your first name rather than your surname.
How old are you? (Aayuu thao rai?)
If you give an honest answer you may hear the Thai person say that they thought you were much younger. This is a standard form of Thai flattery and should be reciprocated wherever possible. Of course, just because a person asks your age doesn’t mean that you have to tell them. A cheerful ‘mai bok’ (‘not telling’) is perfectly acceptable.
Where are you from? (Maa jaak thii nai?)
If the Thai person you are talking to hasn’t travelled abroad, then their knowledge of your country may be limited to what they’ve seen on television. One thing that I have found over the years is that Thai people do seem to have a fascination with the weather in other countries and, more particularly, snow. If you say your home country is cold, don’t be surprised if you find yourself explaining how often it does or doesn’t snow!
Are you married? (Taeng ngaan laew reu yang?)
Traditionally in Thai society it has been common for men and women to get married in their late teens or early 20s. That tradition is slowly changing for a number of reasons, including the fact that some modern Thai women are more career-minded than their predecessors and are happier to put marriage off until later. Nevertheless, there is still an expectation that people will marry. The question itself (‘taeng ngaan laew reu yang?’) actually translates as ‘are you married yet?’ and the reply is either ‘taeng laew’ (‘married already’) or ‘yang’ (‘not yet’). If you reply that you are not yet married, the next question will probably be, ‘why not?’ It might seem rude, but in Thailand it isn’t. If you are divorced you can say so without any stigma, but if you are in your 40’s and never been married be prepared for some looks of surprise and some more probing about why you can’t find a marriage partner
Do you have children? (Laew mii luuk reu yang?)
If you are married, the next question will almost certainly be do you have children. If you don’t have children, be prepared to be asked ‘why not?’ As with marriage, it’s a cultural issue whereby Thai people tend to marry relatively young and start a family.
How long have you been in Thailand? (Yuu muang Thai maa naan laew reu yang?)
If you are here on holiday or vacation you may then get asked where you have visited and where else you are going. If you are here for longer than 2 or 3 weeks expect further comments about how lucky you are. When I talk to Thai people, I’m acutely aware that I’m in a very fortunate position where I’ve been able to travel to many countries as well as the length and breadth of Thailand. I’ve worked hard to do that and made some tough choices along the way, nevertheless I have opportunities that many of my Thai friends have never had and probably never will have. I’m not made to feel guilty about that, but at the same time it does make me appreciate how lucky I am to have spent such an extended period of time living in Thailand.
Do you like Thailand? (Chawp pratheet Thai mai?)
Hopefully, the answer will be yes. There are bound to be some things you don’t like; the mosquitoes, the humidity, the Bangkok traffic jams – all these are things that the Thais themselves might complain about from time to time and they won’t expect you to like everything in Thailand. However, direct criticism of Thai people or the Thai way of doing things won’t gain you any benefit or win you any friends even if you are giving what you feel is constructive criticism. Most Thai people are very patriotic and may be offended by overt criticisms of their country. That’s not to say that Thailand is perfect because it isn’t. Thai people are well aware of the nation’s shortcomings, but they want guests to the country to enjoy their stay. Thai people will be genuinely happy to know that you’ve enjoyed your visit and that you want to return again at some stage in the future.
Do you like Thai food? (Chawp aahaan Thai mai?)
This might be phrased slightly differently, for instance you might be asked, ‘thaan aahaan Thai pen mai?’ (literally, ‘do you know how to eat Thai food’). However, the real crux of the question is, ‘can you tolerate spicy food’. Thais know their cuisine is very fiery and that not every visitor takes to it immediately so don’t worry if the food is too spicy for your liking. You can just respond by saying ‘phet mak’ which means that the food is really spicy. This is a neutral reply and won’t cause any offence even if you tell it to the chef who has prepared the food. If you do genuinely like the food one of the most useful words you can know is ‘aroy’ (delicious) or ‘aroy mak’ (very delicious). You may be amazed about how one word can win you so many smiles and nods of approvals.