I met a pair of Peace Corps volunteers at a bar in Bangkok in 1992. They were leaving Thailand and I had just arrived—my first visit to Thailand. So, they gave me a briefing on what to expect in Thailand.
We discussed many things: respect for the King, the monks and Buddhist temples; driving on the opposite side of the road; and language. Thai is a beautiful language evolved from ancient Tai, Khmer, and Sanskrit, and built around five tones or pitches. Which is daunting for a foreigner.
Every language has a musical quality. In English, it is easy to hear that even in a single word—like popcorn—one syllable—pop—is pronounced on a slightly higher pitch than the other. If you shifted the tones, pitching “corn” higher, it would sound funny but you would still get a box of buttered at the theater.
English speakers also vary pitch to give more nuanced meaning. Listen to how we use rising or falling pitches in questions. For example, “When is the train coming?” If you hear a falling pitch at the end, the questioner is calmly seeking information. A rising pitch at the end indicates exasperation, not a request for new information. Variations in pitch or tone supplement the meaning of the sentence.
However, in the Thai language shifting the tone changes the meaning. For example, key chang means to ride an elephant. But, change the tone of the syllable key, and now it means what the elephant leaves behind that you have to clean up.
The first words I learned in Thai were based on my cultural expectations: I wanted to learn to say “hello” and “how are you?”
(“How are you?” is very confusing for many non-English speakers since we aren’t asking for an accounting of a person’s condition. We are only acknowledging the other person with a polite, but empty platitude.)
I learned “Sa wat dee krab” for “hello” and “sa bie dee roo” for “how are you?”
Armed with this new knowledge, I walked into the kitchen of a Thai restaurant in Des Moines and saluted my Thai friends with “Sa wat dee krab.” Everyone seemed thrilled and I received a chorus of greetings in return. Elated, I moved to “sa bie dee roo.” Now, everyone laughed. The oldest woman there then announced “roo sa bie dee.” Laughter cascaded into hysteria. Every time the laughter began to subside, someone would shout “roo sa bie dee.”
Days later I learned that I had used the wrong tone on the syllable “roo.” Instead of asking “how are you”, I had asked “how is your hole?” and she had responded with “hole doing fine.”
As I learned from the Peace Corps volunteers that night in Bangkok, there are English cognates in Thai—words that sound similar and mean the same in both languages—such as taxi, computer, violin and aspirin.
So, if you have a headache from hearing a violin, you can get a taxi to the pharmacy for aspirin.
But, it doesn’t work that way. One of the volunteers came down with an intense fever. They drove to the clinic and asked for aspirin. The nurses looked at them perplexed. The two volunteers tried everything to communicate “aspirin.” Being Americans, they repeated aspirin louder and louder. He pointed to his head, she mimed heat and fever. Nothing worked.
Until the doctor arrived. Most Thai doctors speak English. The volunteers asked the doctor for aspirin. He turned to the nurses and said “aspirin” using a rising tone on the end. The nurses immediately complied.
This is more than a cautionary tale about linguistics. It demonstrates how much of successful communication resides in the expectations of the listener. Each language has its own structures, such as grammar, syntax, and pronunciation—shared expectations. The speaker and listener then execute a dance where the speaker leads and listener anticipates.
For example, in English, we listen for the last sound of a word because the slight flick of the tongue against the roof of the mouth changes the meaning: walk becomes walked, talk becomes talked.
In Thai, one listens for the opening consonant, the vowel and the tone of the syllable. Without the proper tone, the word is gibberish. Aspirin is meaningless in Thai until the tones are right.
The listener’s expectation arises from the predictions her brain makes based on memory of past experiences. The brain constantly makes predictions, comparing what it knows to the new information the senses take in. Predicting and verifying make the brain more efficient: you can walk upstairs without calculating the height of each step. (See my blog “Erase your brain II” for a description of a simple burglar alarm based on the brain’s prediction of uniform step height.)
We aren’t even aware of the myriad of predictions that the brain makes moment to moment: you can approach the door handle without halting to learn how it works. In fact, you open and walk in with no awareness of the predictions made about the door—saving your brain to make many other predictions in that moment.
We make predictions at every juncture and at multiple levels. Enter a room with fluorescent lights. There is a constant buzz coming from the lights. Did you “hear” it? Probably not, because your brain predicts that the sound is harmless, unworthy of conscious attention—unless you are a maintenance or lighting engineer.
Even as you read this post, you are making predictions. You may be scanning the text quickly, predicting words at a glance, guessing based on the syntax. You may assume that “expectorate” is expectation. You may read “communitarian” as communication.
So far, in this post, we’ve been to Bangkok and Des Moines. Naturally, you are expecting that the next stop will be…
Kirksville in Northeast Missouri. In 1983, I performed my show of topical humor in song for a group of four hundred farmers and their wives sitting on metal folding chairs and bleachers in a high school gymnasium—drinking coffee.
I had been entertaining farmers for a while and I always opened with the same number for them—“Walkin’ Beans.” Because the song is funny and it’s about farming in the Midwest.
I launched into Walkin’ Beans. I was greeted with stunned silence. Four hundred pained faces looking at me like owls. I felt an ice-cold drop of sweat trickle down my back.
I was dying on stage.
Without a plan, I stopped dead cold. The whole gymnasium froze. I looked out across the gymnasium and I said, “You know, this stuff is funny.”
My words traveled across an empty desert and hung up in the rafters. Then, ten rows back, a lady of unseemly girth began to titter, then giggle and laughter spread quickly across the gymnasium. The desert filled with blooming smiles. The rest of the show was fine.
The problem was miscommunication between us. I expected them to laugh and they didn’t know what the hell to expect. From then on, I learned (or tried to learn) how to cue the audience when to laugh, how to create the right expectations in their minds.
You can see this in stage comedies. First, the play is billed as a comedy up front—setting the first expectation. Then, good actors allow an audience to explore its laughter by being careful not to “step” on the laugh lines.
Television sitcoms have laugh tracks to cue the viewer when the show is supposed to be funny. The laugh track serves to calibrate your funny bone expectations.
Though, I don’t why they don’t just stop the show and say “Hey, this stuff is supposed to be funny.”
Anyway, sa bie dee roo? Thanks, hole doing fine.