Is the customer always a 'customer'?

Sometimes, when it comes to the intricacies of the Thai language, it's the little things that bug you

There is nothing wrong with the salesgirl. In fact she is cheery and accommodating.

Nevertheless, she is driving me crazy.

"Customer can take this coupon over to the counter and customer can redeem it for some Heinz tomato ketchup or Ponds lightening cream. Customer has enough points to redeem more than one item."

She hands me the coupon and points politely towards what is clearly the redemption counter.

"Thank you, customer," she says with a gorgeous Thai smile.

I, of course, make my way over to the counter for my free bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup. Maybe even two. I have no use for Ponds lightening cream. Even the ensuing 10 minutes, when hapless supermarket staff try to grapple with a computer system designed for Thais with ID cards, and not farangs with passports, does not faze me. It's that cheery and accommodating cashier who's done me in for the day.

From time to time this column receives feedback that some readers describe as "constructive criticism" -- even when the feeling isn't mutual -- over some topics brought up for discussion on this page. They accuse me of being too picky, or finicky, or any other synonym you may find for "moaning grouch".

I suspect the complaints are from short-term expats, the ones shunted off to Thailand to bide some time while a scandal in the head office blows over, or simply because it's time for a promotion but the board has no idea what to do with them. They are not real expats, here for the long haul, making solid contributions to the Thai economy and society, who have read this column for years and realise that not all my topics are whining tomes against Thai society. I love my life in this country and I love the Thai people around me -- as long as they don't call me "customer".

The English and Thai languages differ in the way they use nouns, pronouns and honorifics. We have it so lucky in English. We have "I" and "You" and that gets us through conversations with the janitor right up to the Queen. They are great levellers, those two pronouns.

Not so in the Thai language. There are 16 different ways of saying "I" depending on who you're talking to, how old you are, what sex you are, where you're from and where you're standing. There is a different "I" and "you" for the boss, the children, the wife, the mistress, the morning monks, the noodle vendor, mates at the pub, while giving a speech, writing a letter and visiting the palace. Thais are constantly flitting between those 16 words in daily conversation. No wonder they look exhausted at times.

"You" extends way past 16 words. I think I use at least three -- than, khun, meung -- on a daily basis. You also refer to people by work. A school director, for example, can be called "school director" to his face instead of "you". It elevates his position, and in Thai, you are constantly finding ways to elevate your interlocutor or, in less desirable situations, belittle them.

I've always called the security guard at the front of my housing village "security guard". He's been sitting in that box for seven years. I bring him pork on a stick now and then and give him a bottle of Regency every New Year.

What's his name? Who knows? I certainly don't. I never smile and say "Hi, how are you?" when he paddles past on his rickety bicycle outside my home. I say "Hi, how is security guard?" I know, it sounds weird, but it's like so many other things in life: once you try it a few times, you grow to like it.

The plumber, the electrician, the painter -- they are all chang ("handyman") instead of "you". This is a normal part of Thai usage.

Yes, yes, I can hear your voices loud and clear. Especially from the back-row expats wallowing in corporate obscurity -- if indeed it is normal, why get upset when that cashier keeps calling you "customer"? You're in a shop, after all.

The Thai word is look kha -- "the child of sales". What's so terrible about that?

I've been here long enough to remember when cashiers called me khun, the nice, normal, mid-range word for "you". But somewhere along the line, over the past 10 years, some sales and marketing executive justifying his outrageous salary has decided that it is better to call a customer a customer.

It's not restricted to Thailand. The same thing happened at Qantas not quite a decade ago. On a return trip home, I boarded a domestic flight from Sydney to Melbourne.

Now, I don't know about you, but when I board a plane anywhere, I consider myself a "passenger" just like everybody else. Qantas decided that wasn't going to be the case any longer.

"We'd like to welcome all our customers on this Qantas flight from Sydney to Melbourne," drifted the voice of an anonymous male cabin-crew member across the sound system.

Customers? My Cambridge dictionary says a passenger is "a person who is travelling on a vehicle but is not driving it, flying it or working on it". That suits me perfectly. Does Qantas have a problem with that?

A customer, so says Cambridge, is "a person who buys goods or a service". That also suits me, but isn't "passenger" a little more specific -- and appropriate? It's a bit like spotting a spider and saying: "Oh look! An insect!"

And let's take this a step further -- it also thwarts the meaning. An airline passenger boards airplanes. An airline customer buys them.

Australia is a funny place like that. We are much more well known for our kangaroos and Kylie Minogue than we are for our logic and sensibility. I notice Qantas dispensed with that little experiment the last time I flew with them -- I was back to being a passenger.

I don't like being called "customer". But in supermarkets and shopping malls across Thailand it has seeped into the language (or, more accurately, company orientation and training seminars). Gone are the good old days of khun … I'm now a cold, clinical look kha.

It reminds me that the cashier at the top of this story is only friendly to me because of a cash transaction. It's not because of my good looks or talent. She wouldn't give me the time of day if I weren't picking up a few groceries and bottles between the hours of 5pm and midnight and paying for them. That's what being called "customer" reminds me of, and that feels a little crass and anonymous to me. The word "you" doesn't require a financial transaction.

There are times, after a particularly trying day, when I want to shout back at that friendly cashier: "Don't call me 'customer'! Call me 'you'!"

But I always, always, hold my tongue. There is nothing worse than a curmudgeonly old farang berating a Thai for something innocuous -- and vindicating those infernal newbie expats.