Andrew Biggs (Thai Memories): No – Maybe

Andrew Biggs

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Take a look at this week’s American music charts and there are no less than three songs in the Top 20 with the “F” word in the title.

There’s a song by Cee-Lo Green about a guy who’s girlfriend ditches him, appropriately entitled “F*** You”. Meanwhile Enrique Iglesias seems to be at some Patpong establishment, hence the title “Tonight (I’m F***ing You)”.

(The follow-up could be something like “My Buffalo Is Sick (Pay the Vet Or No More F***ing Me)”.)

And finally, Pink has a song where she extols the virtues of her boyfriend, though not in such prosaic terms as I just used. “Extolling the Virtues”? Nah. Try “F***ing Perfect”.

What has happened to the music of today? There I go, sounding like my father who used to bristle when popular songs like “Stayin’ Alive” dropped the “G”. I can’t imagine how bristly my father would get over this week’s Top 20.


Clean versions of the songs I just mentioned are available in order to get played on the radio. “F*** You” has a version called “Forget You”, while Enrique sings “Tonight (I’m Loving You)” in his lame G-rated version. This is the musical equivalent of bashing someone’s knees with a baseball bat; I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had anybody come up to me in a seedy Silom nightclub and announce: “Tonight I’m lovin’ you!” It sounds like an invitation to eat at McDonald’s.

What a pity the Thai language isn’t more universal because the Thai word for “hatch” (ฟัก), as in chickens, sounds the same as that “F” word with all the asterisks. Imagine the Billboard Top 20 this week with songs such as “Hatch You”, “Tonight (I’m Hatching You)” and “Hatching Perfect”. It kinda works, doesn’t it?

I’m telling you all this because like English, Thai has a number of taboo words too. Anybody who is currently learning Thai from Noi whom you first met at Pussy Galore on Patpong will have memorized these words quicker than you can say “bar fine”. It is not my job to list them here, suffice to say Thai just like English has colorful words for things such as fornication in all its forms, especially with someone’s mother or an elephant, as well as the male and female anatomy.

Despite all these rude and disgusting words, there is one word which out-disgusts them all. It is a word that you will never hear a Thai use, simply because within the frame of Thai culture it is frowned upon, more than “hatch”, more than “tui” … even more than a sick buffalo.

That word is “No”.

There. I wrote it. Thais reading my column are going to feel uncomfortable seeing that word on paper but it’s time for the world to know. When it comes to cross-cultural peeks into the minds the Thais, nothing is more valuable than knowing a Thai is simply unable to say “no” to your face.

In Thai there is a popular phrase: ”Kid doo gorn” (คิดดูก่อน). It can be translated roughly as “Let me think about that,” and indeed I have heard it being used by Thais speaking English as “I will think about that and contact you again.”

This translation is far too literal to be of any use. I’ve seen green foreign businessmen walk away from meetings thinking things went well after a Thai used this phrase. How sadly mistaken they are … for the real meaning of ”kid doo gorn” is “no”.

For ages I believed that when I suggested something at a meeting, their ”kid doo gorn” reply was an indication my words were being keenly considered, or what I suggested was so interesting and deep the recipient needed time to consider its glorious ramifications.

In reality what follows “kid doo gorn” is a deafening silence from your business associate. The phrase means: “No, I don’t want to, but I’m too polite to say it in front of your face for fear of upsetting you. And I don’t want to be around when you find out I mean no.”

Kheu yang nee (คืออย่างนี้) is another way Thais avoid saying “no.” This phrase can be translated as “It’s like this …” and is used to extrapolate or further explain.

Again, I was a slow learner.

Kheu yang nee is actually a linguistic signpost. It means: “The following information will not sit well with you. It is contrary to how you want things to be and this is my feeble excuse why it is indeed that way.” You can see how the Thai language economizes on words nicely.

For example: “The financial report you said you’d send me yesterday still hasn’t arrived. Have you finished it?”

“Kheu yang nee …” You, dear reader, may now insert some unfortunate series of events, not unlike a Channel 7 soap opera, only there is no accompanying soundtrack of cheap muzak downloaded illegally from the net. You will instead develop a slow sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you realize the speaker is taking his or her time to say: “No.”

You may indeed be sucked in by the “kheu yang nee” as I have on occasions. It acts as a depressant on a par with heroin; and indeed, after hearing some excuses in my time I have felt like transforming one of my six-for-100-Baht Chatuchak handkerchiefs into a tourniquet. But ultimately, if you ask a question that requires a yes-no answer but receive a “kheu yang nee”then the speaker is simply saying “no.”

A long time ago I introduced you to my former squash partner. I called him Eddie From Hell, for reasons you are about to learn. Eddie was so Thai you could literally hear somtam and kai yang as he spoke. Thus he could never bring himself to say “no”.

Instead, he used what is the most commonly-used word by Thais to evade the profane two-letter word … and no matter much I tried to box his ears, or deliberately whack the squash ball into his crotch during play, he would not stop using it.

That replacement word? “Maybe” (อาจจะ /àatjà/).

This should be in the pamphlets they hand out at Suvarnabhumi Airport. “Welcome to Thailand. Don’t do drugs, always use a condom, and ‘maybe’ means ‘no’.”

I have scoured Thai school textbooks which teach the English language and can’t find the offending text that teaches “maybe” as a way to say “no”, but nevertheless the whole country knows it and doesn’t want you to be let in on the secret.

I have been in Thailand so long now that when I have a business meeting I can gauge whether the other party is interested or not. This is not due to any amazing intelligence nor am I the latest reincarnation of Doris Stokes.

It’s just that the moment the other party utters one of these phrases … kid doo gorn, kheu yang nee, maybe … I am aware the meeting is a failure and it’s time to look at other alternatives.

Is this a bad thing? Not if you can read the signposts. While over in the West we are more direct about letting our partners know, here in Thailand they are just as direct – but in a roundabout way.

Also, the Thais are not deliberately setting out to deceive you, and this is an important point. They are trying to save you from feeling bad.

Yes, I know, ultimately a “no” is a “no” and you’re going to feel doubly bad somewhere down the line for not knowing sooner. But we should know the signposts if we are doing business here. It saves us a lot of tears, and will prevent those jaded foreigners who don’t see the signposts from sitting in Silom bars after work using profanities so common in the Billboard Top 20 to describe the Thais.

That’s my dream; for us to start understanding the ubiquitous undercurrent that flows in our private and work lives in this country, rather than just cursing those mother-hatchin’ Thais and their strange ways. With apologies to my father.

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