Small talk at the car wash, yeah

If it's worth saying once, it's worth saying three times

I’ve just had my car cleaned at my local car wash. I am a man who believes in cleanliness, and that extends to my car. Getting a car wash is a task I perform at the beginning of every single month that begins with the letter A. This frequency brings me in contact with an ever-changing gaggle of Lao youth who spray, scrub, shine and sometimes even scratch my car before I steer it into the giant rollers and, ultimately, the middle-aged cashier with the weather-beaten face.

That last stage of the process, the affable weather-beaten lady requires me to hand over 70 baht. As I wind down the window and hand over a 100 baht bill, I am obliged to engage in a little small talk.

“Sabai dee mai khrab?” I ask. Are you well?

She immediately turns up her face.

“Business is down 30%,” she laments, pointing to the giant rollers now idle after my journey through the car wash cavern.

“Yes, well, the government is terrible,” I say.

This is not necessarily an opinion I truly hold, but I am in small talk conversation mode with an unhappy car wash attendant, and thus am obliged to echo sentiments popular among Thai people.

Otherwise there may be embarrassing dead air between us, with nothing but the sounds of Lao youth scrubbing and scratching in the background.

Besides, there is a general rumble of discontent towards the government now, isn’t there? I feel safe in making my comment, especially now that Section 44 is about to come crashing down upon all things democratic. Thais are no different from any other people in this world; they don’t like their government, legitimate or otherwise, and love to talk about it.

The other good thing about it is, as with all topics of a small talk nature, there is no requirement to utilise brain cells. If I say the government is terrible, she can just agree with a drawn out errrrr in Thai, take my 100 baht, give me my change and that’s it.

The weather-beaten car wash lady and I are but ships in the night, throwing a little small talk over the side as we pass.

Thais are very adept at small talk and polite conversation. They should be good at it; manners and politeness are inherent in Thai culture. In Thailand, one smiles when one is content, distraught, angry, disappointed, maniacal, vengeful and even when happy.

A follow-on from this is a honed ability to engage in small talk and indeed, one can converse for an hour with a total stranger and come away with absolutely no new knowledge whatsoever. Such is the role of good small talk.

From my 26 years here in Thailand I can ascertain there are three major topics for small talk. They are the price of things, last night’s soap opera and the government.

That’s all. You can survive talking about the price of things (no matter how much it cost, it was too expensive), last night’s two-hour-long episode of mind-numbing television, or the latest tricks of the government to cement itself into power for eternity.

Thais aren’t much different from the rest of us after all. In Australia we would talk about these three things, too, perhaps substituting rugby or cricket for the price of things, while the Brits would substitute the weather.

And yet something curious happens when Thais are forced to converse with foreigners. That warm polite zone remains, but there are questions and topics that would generally be considered inappropriate to ask in their own culture which are directed at us.

Many years ago I devised an English course that I use at my school to this day. One of the core topics of that course is Small Talk. Like the rest of the course, I created it myself, not from any Google-based internet search, but based on my formative years in Thailand.

In my English course I explain there are many interesting topics one can talk about with farang which don’t require us to utilise too many brain cells, such as “How long have you been in Thailand?” and “What do you do?” and even the slightly annoying “Can you eat Thai food?”

With such myriad choices, I figured, my students could steer themselves away from the dubious yet common questions, such as “What’s your salary?” and “Why are you so fat?” and “Can I borrow 3,000 baht?”

I am nitpicking. Within the confines of Thai society, small talk and conversation is polite and hardly differs from our own.

The only important difference, perhaps, is that in Thailand, when relating a story, it is important to tell the story three times.

Remember Samai, my staff member from the column two weeks ago who claims a female ghost is haunting my Chanthaburi mansion? He is a stickler for doing this.

“I was mowing the lawn when I came across a cobra! It just jumped up then ran away!” Samai exclaimed to me one afternoon as I pulled up in my dirty car (it was towards the end of July).

“Are you serious?” I asked, concerned such an event may have an unwelcome effect on the swiftness of receiving my first Screwdriver of the day.

“I sure am. I was mowing the lawn and suddenly this cobra appeared in front of me. Its head was all black and yellow. Well I jumped back and it ran off into the grass!”

“That’ll teach you for not cutting the grass in a month. Where’s the key to the liquor cabinet?”

“I tell you, it was really scary. I was halfway through cutting the grass and suddenly the cobra appeared out of nowhere. Scared the living daylights out of me. Luckily it slithered away before I could run away myself.”

Did you notice that, dear reader? Did you count the number of times Samai retold the story? Exactly three. This is a remarkable pattern I have detected after years of listening to the likes of Samai relating something interesting three times over.

But I have diverted from my original plan to discuss small talk. Let’s return to the car wash, and my apparently harmless comment about the government I tossed out in order for that weather-beaten cashier to say err and hand me my change with little cerebral effort.

Sometimes life throws you unexpected curve balls that smack you in the face. She doesn’t reply with err. She doesn’t say: “No, you’re wrong.” Nothing so facile. This is her exact response:

“No, it’s not the government. It’s all about availability of funds. You see the banks are not extending loans as much as before owing to the stipulation that an applicant must have money in the bank for at least six months, leading to many people being unable to apply for those loans, and banks being more hesitant in giving them out. Both sides, the banks and the people, are in a stand-off situation financially, and that has a trickle down effect, resulting in people thinking twice about spending money and that’s why there are fewer people coming in here to wash their cars.”

She pauses.

“Here’s your change,” she says.

I tell her she can keep it. It’s not a tip. Consider it penance. n

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