OPINION — It’s a known fact that mai pen rai is one of the most-used responses in the Thai language. The three syllables roughly translate to “it’s okay” or “don’t worry” — but what does this simple phrase actually mean?
After asking not only foreigners, but also native Thais, what their definition of mai pen rai is, I received a surprising variety of responses.
Just some of the many interpretations were as follows: “Yeah, I know what it means — ‘whatever,’ right?”; “It’s like never mind,”; “Oh — don’t worry,” and so on.
As a Thai growing up in the Land of Smiles, the significance of this frequently-used expression never really dawned on me. It was a nice and common thing to say, even among the foreign kids at my international school.
However, when I lived abroad during an exchange program, the reactions I received when I said the English version of mai pen rai — “no, don’t worry” or “I’m ok, thanks” — made me realize it isn’t just a phrase, but rather a cultural symbol and even a philosophy for Thailand.
For example, once when I was offered the last piece of cake by my host family, although I would have loved to snap it up I automatically thought “mai pen rai” as my usual polite response, and blurted out the English version “It’s okay, thanks.” But they didn’t understand what I meant and asked me again, just to check.
Resisting my temptation, I politely declined again as I usually would at home in Thailand, and replied “No, don’t worry.” At this point I was hoping for a response along the lines of “Are you sure?” But nope — the delicious slice was gone in a matter of seconds.
Only following incidents like that, did I come to know that the modest mai pen rai has become lost in translation. The mere “it’s okay” is not an adequate substitute for the Thai catchphrase, and in fact it can have numerous meanings.
Explaining the saying to non-Thai speakers is a challenging task — there isn’t really a straightforward translation for this seemingly simple phrase, as surprising as that sounds.
But let me try: let’s visualize the different meanings of mai pen rai with pizza.
The “No, thank you (but actually yes please!)” meaning
“Do you want the last slice of pizza?”
[THINKS]: Yes, I want the pizza!
But says: “Mai pen rai ka.”
When answering a yes-no question, and they want to say yes, Thais often opt for mai pen rai.
This is because Thais have a habit of rejecting help or an offer simply because they don’t want to cause trouble or inconvenience to that person, even when it comes to delicious pizza.
This demonstrates the greng jai attitude, a Thai concept of not wanting to trouble someone.
A hesitant mai pen rai indicates thoughtfulness over the inconvenience that one might cause to the person offering the pizza.
However if the person asking is a non-Thai, the mai pen rai response would appear to them to be a no. Confusing, isn’t it?
The “Anything is fine” meaning
The question “Should we order your favorite pizza topping?” is often followed by “Mai pen rai. Arai gor dai” (meaning “It’s okay. Anything is fine”).
The person replying may have a choice of pizza topping in mind, but wants the first person asking to be happy and so would prefer it if they decided.
But at the same time, their response would be the same if they didn’t have a preferred option. That’s because, broadly speaking, not only do Thais not want to appear picky, they also don’t like to argue. So they would prefer to go along with whatever choice — in this case pizza topping — the person asking makes.
The “Don’t worry about it” meaning
Let’s say someone drops the last slice of pizza on the floor. A Thai person would probably say “Mai pen rai” in that situation, an easygoing form of “it’s okay” or “let it go.” This demonstrates a carefree attitude and how Thais try not to stress over small problems.
The pizza’s on the floor, there’s nothing that can be done. So mai pen rai.
The “You’re welcome.”
“Here’s your slice.”
“Mai pen rai.”
When you say thank you, a mai pen rai may be the response. Not only is it a form of showing appreciation for your gratitude, but also a way of saying “There’s no need to thank me! It was nothing.”
The “No, thank you” meaning
“Do you want the last slice of pizza?”
[THINKS]: No, I don’t want the pizza.
And says: “Mai pen rai ka.”
Sometimes, even with pizza, there can be situations where mai pen rai just means no.
Even though, as we explained earlier, “mai pen rai” in this situation could mean the secret “yes but I don’t want to inconvenience you so I’ll say that and hope you pick up on my true desire for the pizza” (phew), sometimes it can be used as a polite “no, thank you.”
This is because Thais believe it’s rude to just say “Mai” (no) so opt for a softer response.
On most occasions, the person asking would understand this response — however, in some cases, the person asking may still interpret the “mai pen rai” as “maybe” or “yes” and be left wondering what the other person means.
In that situation, the first person will respond to the mai pen rai response with — yes, you’ve guessed it — another mai pen rai if they think the second person is implying “yes please”.
“Do you want the last slice of pizza?”
“Mai pen rai. You should take it. You only had two slices.”
“Mai pen rai. I’m actually full. You take it.”
What farangs think mai pen rai means
So now let’s look at how foreigners understand this phrase. Despite the friendliness and unselfishness that Thais try to show by using mai pen rai, foreigners often misunderstand the meaning of the phrase. Some interpret it as “let it go” and “whatever,” while others even think it doesn’t mean anything at all. The following are just a few of their interpretations.
The “It doesn’t mean anything” interpretation
My American speech professor, Mr. John, a self-professed confused foreigner, describes mai pen rai as “a Thai general-purpose phrase to lubricate social talk.” After four years of hearing the phrase, he says: “Mostly, it is a filler word and doesn’t carry much meaning.” I wouldn’t quite agree with him, but I understand what he means.
The “No, thanks” interpretation
Non-Thai speakers think mai pen rai can mean “no” in some cases, which is correct. But as I explained earlier, Thais find it tough to be totally straightforward and wouldn’t want non-Thais to interpret a mai pen rai as a rude “No.” Our fear of hurting others’ feelings by saying no has become an obstacle in our daily conversations.
To many foreigners, it can be frustrating to figure out what a Thai wants when they use mai pen rai. During the first few months of living with my Italian host family on exchange, my host mom Giovanna was concerned that I wasn’t enjoying her homemade pizzas, because of my frequent usage of “It’s ok, thanks” when she offered me food.
But obviously, I wanted the pizza! When I later explained to her that this was what I had meant, she gave me this excellent piece of advice: “To get what you want, just say what you want.”
The “Whatever” interpretation
Although the mai pen rai is deemed the most considerate response from a Thai, a foreigner might think the opposite. When a Thai gives this answer, a non-Thai may feel as if their question was just rudely shrugged off — the last thing Thais would want them to think!
For example, when visiting my Thai-German aunt Claudia, she asked me if there was any special place I wanted to go to. I replied with a mai pen rai, meaning it as a common courtesy and that I would be happy to go anywhere she wanted.
So I was surprised and crestfallen when my response actually offended her. She replied: “It’s like you don’t care.” It turned out it would have been a pleasure for her to take me out somewhere, but my mai pen rai only came across to her as disinterest.
My Singaporean friend Keith feels the same about mai pen rai. Having moved to Bangkok almost a year ago, he had experienced the phrase many times and didn’t appreciate it. “It’s polite, but sometimes it’s like people say it because they can’t be bothered to have a discussion,” he said.
The “Hang loose, bro” interpretation
Despite all the ways mai pen rai can be misinterpreted, the phrase is still one of the warmest and in some ways most characteristic of the Thai language. Cory and Lea, German exchange students at Chulalongkorn, said it “shows how laid-back Thai people are.”
When asked what mai pen rai means to him, my Thai-American friend Alex joked: “My mom tells me to say that after someone punches me in the face.”
Even though he is part Thai, it was difficult for Alex to fully comprehend greng jai-ness, as no such thing exists in Western culture. After moving to Thailand a nearly year ago, he confessed: “I don’t really know what it means — I just know that it’s said a lot.”
Whatever you think about the humble mai pen rai, you can’t deny it has an impact. For tourists in Thailand, the mai pen rai may simply be viewed as a welcoming friendly phrase, but for expats, this ambiguous concept can be hard to grasp. What many Thais view as a symbol of their affection and openness can sadly be perceived by non-Thais as vagueness and a lack of interest.
Without discussing these misconceptions with non-Thais, I would have never known how three syllables could cause so much confusion. It’s shown me how powerful language can be, and that sometimes, using mai pen rai is not okay.
Illustrations: Praew Tansanga