Cambodians smile a lot

For Cambodians, smile means harmony, welcome to others and peace. It comes probably from Buddhism, where smile is considered a spiritual virtue. Photo Al Rodas.

I asked Lim Socheat to explain to me why Cambodians smile too much. When he listened my question, he smiled and tried to explain me. The topic came because an European friend asked me the meaning of the Cambodian smile. We smile very much in most Latin American countries, though I can say that in some regions there are more smiling behavior than others. The African smile is also attractive plus their persons involved with music and dance in their daily life. In Asia, not every country is smiling, for example, Chinese people do not smile to strangers

United States is a join of peoples from around the world, so there are smiling and no smiling US nationals.

The level of European smile can be also a topic to analyze, but in general it is assumed in regions like Latin America and South East Asia that ‘Europeans don’t smile’ – something you can debate on the comments of this post 🙂 See this post of Tyler Cower on Marginal Revolution citing John Tierney, who argues why you shouldn’t smile too much.

The Southeast Asian region is, in fact, a smiling one, being Cambodia the king, as the same Bayon temple demonstrate. Thais smile, Vietnamese smile less than Thais and Cambodians smile a lot.

Socheat told me that for Cambodians smile is very important because it facilitates the relations with others. Smile means to be friendly, to say ‘I like you’ and smile is a greeting.

When a Cambodian smiles to you, he or she is saying ‘hello.’

If somebody does not smile to you, this person means he or she dislikes you or does not want to talk to you,’ he says. Socheat says also that Cambodian women should smile more than man to be polite.

If you have a problem, you smile to hide your feelings, because it is not good that you affect the community with your problem,’ he explains to me when I ask why Cambodians smile even if they have problems. Your smile protects others to be affected by your worries, so this is kindness.

This answer reminds me the embarrass situation of Filipino president Benigno Aquino, who smiled during the incident of the bus hostage in August 2010, worsening the impact in the public opinion. President Aquino had to explain in an official statement:  ‘My smile might have been misunderstood, ‘no? I have several expressions. I smile when I’m happy. I smile when I’m faced with a very absurd situation, when I can’t prevent my own emotions. I have to keep my own emotions checked. If I offended certain people, I apologize to them. Obviously, there was no joy in attending to that situation. More on the absurdity of the matter (…) ‘

If you have a discussion with somebody, you must stop it with a smile, then you keep your friendship, Socheat provides more details over the Cambodian smile behavior. ‘A person who smiles very much, man or women, is considered very friendly and this person is giving a great contribution to the community, making it in peace and harmony.

If a foreigner does not smile, he says, it means he dislikes us or he does not want to relate with us, so we keep distance with that person, he concluded.

Finally, we have to refer to religion. While smiling is very limited in Christianity – for example, Jesus has been portrayed for centuries as unsmiling – Buddhism considers smile as a sign of harmony and spirituality.

‘In ancient China, the Taoists taught that a constant inner smile, a smile to oneself, insured health, happiness and longevity. Why? Smiling to yourself is like basking in love: you become your own best friend. Living with an inner smile is to live in harmony with yourself.’ – Mantak Chia


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About Albeiro Rodas

Albeiro Rodas (in Cambodia Sky Ly Samnang), is a MA in Digital Communication, independent journalist and a Salesian of Don Bosco from Amalfi, Colombia, based in Cambodia since 1999. He is the creator of the Don Bosco schools of journalism in Sihanoukville and Kep with young people from poor communities and the founder of the Don Bosco Kep Children Fund. Medal for Social Commitment UPB (2010); among the 100 more upstanding Colombians abroad (Marca Colombia, 2012, and among the 12 Colombians that are making this a better world 2013 (

4 responses to “Cambodians smile a lot”

  1. grayspirit says :

    smile … i’m adding this blog to a list of useful blogs for people retiring abroad.

  2. theelectriccane says :

    Nothing wrong with being smiley!

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