No “I” in Thai

As I pick up bits and pieces of the Thai language each day, I’ve found that the Thai people have a unique way of talking about themselves: they omit the “I” and refer to themselves in the 3rd person. This is the first time I’ve encountered this kind of disassociation in a language and made me think about how often we use the word “I” in American English, and by comparison, how self-centered we are as a culture.

So there Khun Thi was, sitting in Khun Thi's house...
So there Khun Thi was, sitting in Khun Thi's house...

In western culture, referring to yourself in the third person sounds pretentious or at the very least weird. When I recognized this pattern in my wife’s Thai conversation, I immediately thought of the Seinfeld episode where Elaine falls for a character named Jimmy, who says things like, “Moving to Manhattan set Jimmy back a bit.” This self-referring style soon infects George, who in a fit of frustration, shouts, “George is gettin’ upset!” It’s hard not to laugh at this. It’s funny to stand outside yourself and observe how you act. It takes the ego right out of things and puts you in a comic position; tragedy is when something unfortunate happens to you. Comedy is when it happens to somebody else.

The first person is all about attachment to and glorification of the self. This maybe somehow related to the Judeo-Christian concept of the soul. It’s something sacred; it is our connection to the Creator, and must be defended at all costs. But in Buddhist cultures, the concept of annata, or no-soul, is the ego-less state of enlightenment and the path to Nirvana.

So here’s a clash of cultures, I thought. Look at the last e-mail you wrote. Count the number of “I”s in it. Then count the number of “We”s, and “You”s. Surprised? If you were brought up in an Anglo culture you shouldn’t be. We celebrate ego and worship individualism. Happiness is all about satisfying what “I” want. When we sacrifice for our children or spouse, that’s because we think that their success or failure reflects on us; the quality of our parenting or our dedication as a wife or husband.

That’s not to say Thailand is full of selfless people who live only to serve others. You only need to look at the way people drive here and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Survival instincts are inextricably tied to our protection of the self. This self-preservation transcends culture, but so does compassion. No culture has a monopoly on these human values, yet the way that we talk about ourselves has everything to do with the way we see our place in the world and how we feel.

Without a “Me” in the Thai language, there is a lot more room to talk about things dispassionately; to observe them as from a distance. Talking to other people about yourself is like describing a movie in which you are the main character and all these things are happening to you. At the same time, you are the one directing the movie and have a lot of control over where it goes next.

This is known in NLP as a disassociated position; a perspective of third party observation. It brings up an interesting question: if I really am the director of the movie of my life, do I want to create comedy or tragedy? This is where our language makes a big difference: comedy is nothing more than tragedy plus distance. If you’ve ever said, “We’ll look back on this and laugh,” why not laugh now?

By asking ourselves when we lock ourselves out of our cars in the pouring rain, “How would this look in a movie?” The answer inevitably is, “Pretty damn funny.” It’s funny, because it’s not happening to me, it’s happing to [Your name here]. When we’re able to remove ourselves from what we normally deem unhappy circumstances, by taking away our pride, ego and self-importance, we realize how absurd things are and we feel better. There’s a reason Thailand is known as “The land of smiles”.