Small talk, love it or hate it it’s an essential part of meeting, conversing and getting to know people. And whether it’s a couple of weeks of seeing the Land of Smiles from the outside of a back-pack, or you’re digging-in for the long haul, you are absolutely going to get more out of your time in Thailand if you can strike up a round of deep-and-meaningless with the people you meet along the way.
You intrepid Travelfish vagabonds will know that small talk varies from place to place, culture to culture, with varying mores and taboos. In ‘The West’ it’s all about the weather and how you are and how you’ve been, the economy and politics – but stay away from salaries or how much your house cost. In Thailand food, family and social hierarchy are very important. As a consequence small talk around these themes is perfectly acceptable. Indeed among Thais it is absolutely essential, and conversations between new acquaintances will often consist of many questions that enable the social categorisation of each other.
You might therefore be a bit taken aback when new Thai friends ask you how much you earn, how much your iPhone cost, whether you’re married, and if you have children ... or not yet. Don’t be, it’s not a third degree and you’ll be happy to know that some of the same old nonsense you’re used to back home is just as likely to come up too.
The first two examples we'll look at are as common as “How are you?”, and the asker genuinely is about as interested in the answer as you are when you ask someone how they are.
Where are you going? Bpai nǎi ไปไหน
You’ll be asked this as you wander out from you guesthouse, as you amble down the beach, or in fact any time you meet someone on your travels.
Appropriate answers all begin with ‘bpai’ ไป followed by a location or activity. For example:
Bpai hàat ไปหาด - I’m going to the beach
Bpai sà-tăa-nee rót fai ไปสถานีรถไฟ – I’m going to the train station
Bpai wâi náam ไปว่ายน้ำ - I’m going for a swim.
A good all-purpose answer if you don’t really know where you’re going is Bpai tîeow ไปเถี่ยว – I’m going ‘out’.
A variation is Bpai năi maa ไปไหนมา – Where have you been? (asked as you trudge back into your guesthouse, sun burnt and salt stained from a day’s hard graft on the beach).
You can answer this in the same way as the above examples but adding ‘maa’ to the end e.g. Bpai wâi náam maa ไปว่ายน้ำมา – I’ve been swimming.
Have you eaten, or not yet? Gin khâo rěuh yang กินข้าวหรือยัง
Another something and nothing question. The ‘not yet’ tag on the end is very common in Thai phraseology and softens the question to the Thai ear.
There are two ways to answer this: Gin léaw กินแล้ว - I’ve eaten already, or Yang ยัง – Not yet.
Getting to Know You
If you stay for a bit of a chat after these ice-breakers you will need to get in to the questions we talked about above. Remember these are polite enquiries into the things Thai people find important, not impudent delving into your private life.
How old are you? Aa-yú tâo-rai อายุเท่าไร
What is your occupation? Tam ngaan àrai ทำงานอะไร
Are you married, or not yet? dtàeng ngaan rěuh yang แต่งงานหรือยัง
Do you have children, or not yet? Mee lôok rěuh yang มีลูกหรือยัง
How many children do you have? Mee lôok gee khon มีลูกกี่คน
Aa-yu ______ bpee. อายุ ____ ปี (insert age)
Tam ngaan bpen _______. ทำงานเป็น_______ (insert occupation)
Dtàeng ngaan léaw แต่งงานแล้ว Yes, I’m married; or Yang ยัง – Not yet. The assumption here is that you will be at some point … so just go with it ;-)
Mee léaw มีแล้ว I have (children) already; or Yang mâi mee ยังไม่มี I don’t yet have (children). Again with the assumption.
Mee _____ khon. มี____คน (insert number of children).
n.b. I suggest using Thai2English.com or Learn-thai.com to look up the Thai word for your occupation, age and where you're going/been.
Although asking how someone is is not normally the focus of Thai small talk (and in some cases is taken as a literal inquiry after someone's physical health), it feels right to know how to say it just in case. In cosmopolitan places like Bangkok, it is more common among friends, particularly younger members of society.
How are you? Sà-baai dee mai สบายดีไหม
How's is going? Bpen yang ngai baang เป็นยังไงบาง
What's up? wâa ngai ว่าไง
All of these are answered in the same way:
Affirmative: sà-baai dee สบายดี
Negative: mâi sà-baai ไม่สบาย
Then to finish this small treatise on small talk, perhaps the most important question of all:
Who do you support? Chia team àrai. เชียร์ทีมอะไร.
For which any answer other than Man U, Liverpool or Chelsea will draw baffled looks. Though I suggest telling them Muangthong United, current Thai Premiership title holders, just to see what happens.
And remember to always enjoy your small talk with a big smile.
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See you next time
Edit - Before the transliteration police come after me: How are you? Sà-baai dee mǎi สบายดีไหม Rising tone on mai, not flat. But then you knew tyhat didn't you ;-)