In Bangkok, Thailand, motorcycle policemen patrol the city wearing anti-pollution masks with bright red grins painted upon them.
In an odd attempt at improving public relations between the police and the populace, the highway policemen of Thailand wear the masks to lift the moods of passing motorists.
This past year has been no laughing matter for the lovely country known once known as “The Land of Smiles.” Unstable government, an increase in mob violence and a decrease in tourism due to the recent hostile takeover of Bangkok’s airports have created a volatile environment with little to smile about.
“For our highway policemen, we have the policy that the police must be friendly and smiling all the time, but the problem is, when we’re tired, it’s hard to keep smiling,” said Colonel Somyos Promnim, the Highway Police commander.
The Thai smile is as enigmatic as that of the courtly lady depicted in Da Vinci’s masterpiece, Mona Lisa. It is as mysterious and as complicated in meaning as the bow is to the Japanese, and it also requires just as many muscles.
The communication problem with foreign visitors is quite obvious. They may be charmed outwardly by the smiles, but language and cultural barriers preclude their understanding of what is behind that smile. What is the real expression on the face behind the face, so to speak?
“They have to put on a mask because a smile doesn’t come naturally anymore… These past few years that smile has worn thin because we are all angry at each other and willing to show it,” says economist, Ammar Siamwalla.
Recently, Abac, a leading polling agency, spent three days questioning more than 2,000 people in the Bangkok area only to discover that on a scale of 1 to 10, people gave Thailand only 5.77 points for being the “Land of Smiles.”
One customer service company has taken the lead by giving its employees mirrors so that they can practice the effect their smiles have on others.
In Japan, workers have been trained to hold a chopstick between their upper lips and their noses to produce the living equivalent of a smiling emoticon.
“People forget to smile… but I think with better training we can do a better job. Training should always be one of the top categories for anyone,” says Kritika Kongsompong, a professor of business who for a year was Thailand’s grim hostess of the television show, The Weakest Link.
Thailand’s Prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, promised his people that Thailand will once again become the land of smiles.
The highway police seem to be as good a place to start as any.
So what is everyone waiting for?
Put on a happy face!