Why Thailand loves better.

An understanding of how the Thai apply their love internationally.

I am a person of routines, one of the most self-defining routines that I have is my freshly brewed black filter coffee in the morning whilst reading a physical journal or newspaper as seen in figure 1. After that first bitter sip, I always fall back into the same thought “I love my morning coffee”. As a student of an International Relations minor in Thailand I started wondering about being in Thailand sitting on the street when I am suddenly asked whether I am enjoying myself and whether I would like to order something. Here I thought, how would I say this in Thai?

I mean sure, “Chan rák Gaffee” would come close to it, yet I wondered. Could I, on that same terrace tell my new acquaintance “I love him?” whilst making the safe distinguishment between a friend and lover? And in that sense, do I mean the same thing as in English?

Figure 1: A picture of my morning routine, self-made artwork (2021)

I am a philosopher myself and have always had a particular taste for the implications of perspective, ethics and languages. And in my eyes, it all starts with one concept: Love. It is widely accepted that language and culture are deeply entwined with each other and that language can shape the way we think in a variety of ways[1]. It can affect how we perceive what is described to us as well as give personal weight to that what is described[2]. Some even state that people that speak different languages have different limitations, and thus people with a shared culture and a different language will have different worldviews”[3]. There is even a science of this relationship called “sociolinguistics” in which the role of language in culture is understood[4]. Here it is important to factor in the context at all times.

Let’s look a bit closer to this word, ‘love’ from a linguistic perspective. According to the Oxford Dictionary [5] love is described as ‘Senses relating to affection and attachment’, a sort of dependency as such. The Anglo-European vision of love is rooted in Christian heritage whereas the Thai do not have a long history of Christianity. After a few classes of Thai this makes me wonder, can a Thai person really ‘love’ his or her coffee the way I do? And a more important question, what does it mean to love in Thai? Continuing, how does this affect the Thai society in any way?

The complicating factor here, is that the Thai language is complex to say the least. There are numerous different dialects and closely related languages within the country, of which roughly half the words that are used are borrowed from other languages. To make things even worse is that Thai is a collective word for the different speaking styles that are used when addressing different people in the social hierarchy. One would, for example, address a royal with a different type of speech than one would address a monk, or a friend.

From a different perspective, there is the fact that the Thai culture and language is deeply influenced by Buddhism. A way of life that strives to be free of attachments [6]. Yet at the same time, it seems that love and compassion are those things that define the Buddhist religion to begin with. Quite the mouthful and a concept that seems to be striving away further and further from a general love for having coffee.

In Buddism, there are four types of love, universal love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity [7]. I will try to highlight these briefly yet be wary of simplification since these concepts at times require a lifetime of study to be fully understood. Where universal love relates to a general and boundless love of all [8], compassion refers to the understanding of others pains and trying to mitigate those [9]. Sympathetic joy and equanimity are less altruistic and focus on the self with regards to its surroundings. They describe the joy in cheering for all beings and the state of internal calmness [10]. Right away, it seems evident that there are massive differences between Thai love and the Western, more Christian notion of love.

Western love is oriented on sensation/chemistry, emotions, and hence tends to be quick. Here, romance tends to be the key to understanding love. This does not mean that Thai people experience a different feeling of love; a study on brain mapping between East and West found that people share similar experiences of physiological love despite having cultural differences [11].  It is the difference in perspective, philosophy and culture that is discussed along with its consequences. The Thai perspective differs since it is not the sensation or result that is described with love, it is the act of leading a virtuous life that is described.

A fascinating study conducted in 2005 on love in modern Thai songs showed that most commonly love is seen as a container, becoming whole, a common goal and link between people. It was also cited that the Thai apply this in such creative and disruptive ways that it can give us a new understanding of the concept of love [12]. Paradoxically, the Thai typically do not show affection through language, rather they touch or, for the real Casanova’s out there, write to one another [13].

Figure 2: Within Thai culture, there is an emphasis on collectivism and family members are typically spending more time together than people in western society do. Artwork by ICBC201FNN (n.d.).

Of course, love goes further than just the romantic love, and expresses itself towards others in society, such as the elderly, friends, authority, and in appreciation of harmony. Hofstede has created a model to give more insight into another culture, in this model there are different dimensions that are given an index from 1 to 100 (1 = lowest and 100 = highest) as highlighted in figure 1. Here two dimensions are important to consider, the low individualism and low masculinity, or more commonly described as a collectivistic and feministic/protective society. As compared to Western countries where typically individualism plays a much larger role (although masculinity differs per country significantly Western societies).

There is a general feeling of interdependence and caring for each other in the Thai society [14]. Just as the word for love in Thai advocates for connection and caring so does this affect how the Thai perceive their relations.

Figure 3: Hofstede’s 6 dimensions of culture applied to Thailand. Artwork adjusted from Hofstede (2021)

Still, there are numerous counter arguments present as well. Thailand is widely known as the country with the highest percentage of adultery (surpassing 50% of Thai adults) [15]. Followed by 9 (west) European countries on the list. It is so common that there is even a word for this, the “mia noi” or minor wife has been normal for centuries. “The mia yai takes care of the family and the kids; the mia noi takes care of the husband [16].” Plural relations are common, another term ‘gig’ or a ‘more than a friend’ is common and a person typically has more than one.[17] Then there is the extravagant size of the sex industry, since prostitution has been common in society for centuries [18].

Figure 4: The top 10 countries in terms of adultery in the world. One can clearly see that Thailand stands out in comparison with the other nations both regionally and culturally. Artwork by StatistaCharts (2011).

So why is it that such a selfless notion of love results in such a high number of seemingly selfish statistics? Infidelity, plural pursuits of sex and an extremely high degree of prostitution.

The answer might be simpler than it initially seems. Love in Thailand is not seen as a romantic and sensual pursuit which it is through a Western lens. Yet the sensation of love is no different, one can therefore expect people to still pursuit these pleasures whilst being less expected to choose their relationships on a sensational basis. The sensations are more a by-product, the virtuous live and let-live-approach with a collectivistic goal in mind.

On a global scale this might be the reason that Thailand is conducting such effective diplomacy. Thailand does have a great reputation for being one of the few countries without interstate conflicts. Besides an awkward relationship with its neighbouring country Cambodia, it seems that Thailand knows exactly how to navigate the international playgrounds. In the eyes of the Thai people, it is all about building a lasting relationship. Whereas many others are used to pursuing their best option in relationships and quick games, it seems that the Thai cultivate a sustainable and less directly rewarding relationships. After all, it is not about the result or sensation, it is the virtuousness that is pursued. In the end, we are all interdependent and that is how it is naturally done.  

For me, it is here where the puzzle pieces come together in Thailand. In the country of smiles, where people do not love for the sake of pleasure. No, they do it because it leads to a more virtuous way of life.

And about that coffee that I mentioned earlier, maybe I have used the right word all along. “I love morning coffee” but I just did not know an accurate word for it. It is not the sensation that I hinted at, it is this equanimity or tranquillity in my routines I mentioned earlier. If anything, my coffee ended up being cold due to all this wondering, yet another sign that teaches me. The Thai do it better; no wonder that they invented Iced coffee.

Figure 5: A typical Thai iced coffee, artwork by evelynathens (2018)

[1] Boroditsky, L. (2017). How language shapes the way we think. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/lera_boroditsky_how_language_shapes_the_way_we_think/details

[2] Fausey, C. M., Long, B. L., Inamori, A., & Boroditsky, L. (2010). Constructing agency: the role of language. Frontiers in Psychology. doi:https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00162 https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00162/full#B22

[3] Emmitt, M., & Pollock, J. (1997). Language and learning: an introduction for teaching (2nded). Oxford University Press.

[4] Holmes, J. (2001). Sociolinguistics. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences.https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/social-sciences/sociolinguistics

[5] Oxford English Dictionary. (2021). Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved from www.oed.com: https://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/110566#:~:text=Thesaurus%20%C2%BB-,a.,typically%20combined%20with%20sexual%20passion.

[6] Keyes, C. (2016). THERAVADA BUDDHISM AND BUDDHIST NATIONALISM: SRI LANKA, MYANMAR, CAMBODIA, AND THAILAND. The Review of Faith and International Affairs, 14(4), 42-52.

[7] Aronson, H. B. (1996`). Love and Sympathy in Theravāda Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.

[8] Aronson, H. B. (1996`). Love and Sympathy in Theravāda Buddhism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.

[9] Merriam-Webster. (2021). Merriam-Webster. Retrieved from www.merriam-webster.com: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/compassion

[10] Catherine, S. (2021). imsb. Retrieved from www.imsb.org: https://www.imsb.org/prev/teachings/equanimity.php

[11] People’s Daily Online. (2010). People’s Daily Online. Retrieved from en.people.cn: http://en.people.cn/90001/90782/90873/7032832.html

[12] Ngamjitwongsakul, P. (2005). LOVE METAPHORS IN MODERN THAI SONGS. MANUSYA: Journal of Humanities, 8(2), 14-29.

[13] Poetry Writing to Express Love in Thai and in English: A Second Language (L2) Writing Perspective. (2010). International Journal of Innovation in English Language, 2(2), 141-157.

[14] Hofstede Insights. (2021). Hofstede Insights. Retrieved from www.hofstede-insights.com: https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/thailand/

[15] McCarthy, N. (2016). Statista. Retrieved from www.statista.com: https://www.statista.com/chart/6841/the-most-unfaithful-nationalities/

[16] Tasty Thailand. (2011, June 22). Tasty Thailand. Retrieved from www.tastythailand.com: https://tastythailand.com/the-mia-noi-or-minor-wife-in-thailand-yes-thai-men-do-have-a-mistress/

[17] palmisano. (2011). Thai Language Blog. Retrieved from https://blogs.transparent.com/thai/the-gig/: https://blogs.transparent.com/thai/the-gig/

[18] Lines, L. (2015). Prostitution in Thailand: Representations in Fiction and Narrative Non-Fiction. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 16(3), 85-100.

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