Thai people don’t like to say no. This is evident even in their simplest words: “yes” is chai and the closest thing to “no” is mai chai, which translates as “not yes.” This is more than just a simple language quirk. It reflects much about Thai society that isn’t apparent to outsiders until they’ve spent some time in the country.
When I arrived in Thailand four years ago, mai chai seemed a clunky phrase. I soon realised, however, that it becomes even more unmanageable when a polite ending is tacked onto it, as it often is. Then, it becomes mai chai ka, if a woman is speaking, and mai chai krub if a man is. It’s far less sleek than the simple non in French or nein in German.
Thailand is famously known as the Land of Smiles, and its residents pride themselves on being gracious and accommodating. As a collective culture, Thai people are taught to be more concerned with what’s best for the group rather than what suits them personally. Perhaps this is why “no” is always tempered with a “yes”. “Not yes” seems to imply in one small phrase their regret at not being able to consent to what you’ve asked. In fact, when mai chai is proffered, it’s often with downcast eyes and a small bow called a wai or a hand waved in front of the face apologetically.
According to Rachawit Photiyarach, intercultural communications professor at Bangkok’s Kasetsart University, “Thais avoid confrontation because they live in a group-orientated culture. Showing emotion is considered immature or rude, so many people value those who can handle situations calmly.”
He added, “Thai society is highly conservative and traditional. It’s a culture where showing gratification and emotion is controlled by strict social norms. This is why showing public affection between couples is considered rude here.”
As opposed to many European countries where people simply say what they mean, in Thai communication, the listener must know a bit about the culture to fully understand what is being said. Thai people tend to dance around confrontations, emotional situations and anything unpleasant; when a Thai friend says yes to you, they may really be saying no – if you know how to interpret their ever-gracious words.
“People don’t often tell you no. Maybe among very old friends, but with others, with work colleagues or family members, Thai people always say yes and may go on to explain later why they can’t do something,” Photiyarach explained. “A Thai person will say yes because social etiquette dictates that they do.”
For example, a Thai employee will rarely refuse their boss anything. If a manager asks, “Can you work on Saturday?” the Thai employee might answer, “Yes, but my parents are coming for dinner at my home, and I need to collect my children from their sports activities in the afternoon.” The response is implicit, and it’s up to the listener to construe the meaning.
Thais strongly believe in maintaining good relationships; in a developing country where life can be hard, people stick together and try to help each other. Harmonious relationships take precedence over being right or wrong, over personal agreement or dissent, even over professional progress. Thais avoid saying no to keep the peace.
Apologies are uncommon in Thai. To say you are sorry is to admit you made a mistake and to lose face, which is one of the worst things that can happen to you in many Asian societies. In a collective culture, the opinion of the group is everything. Thais prefer not to lose face in the first place by keeping a pleasant disposition at all times. If they do make a mistake, they may never acknowledge it.
“It is difficult to regain your face when you have done something stupid or inappropriate in the eyes of many Thais. This is in contrast to Western culture, where people are likely to forgive you if you are honest,” Photiyarach said.
During my years in Thailand, I’ve learned to be more accommodating, to think of ways that I can say “yes”. When I first arrived here for a copywriting job, I was the only person to speak up at meetings or contradict my boss. I thought this was how I was supposed to show that I was a useful member of the team. However, I must not have made a good impression, as a Thai co-worker later described me as “having war in my heart”.
I had to realize that saying yes to someone else – or not telling them no – did not mean that I was a pushover; perhaps it just meant that I wanted to help. I began to admire the way that Thai people often said yes, even at the cost of their own wants and needs.
Living in Bangkok, it’s liberating to know that whatever it is that you’ve requested, the answer may not be yes – in fact, it might be “not yes” – but it will rarely be no.