Prominent among the cultural traits of Thai society is sanuk (or: sanook), an essential ingredient of the Thai way of life. It is sanuk that puts a smile onto Thai people’s face, every so often.
Soon after their arrival in Thailand, foreign visitors would likely encounter situations in which people spontaneously interact in a manner that resembles a sudden and joyful interlude escalating into a quick, light-hearted exchange of words, followed by chuckling and, then, carrying on with ones’ affairs contentedly. First-time observers would likely form the impression that great fun was had. Upon inquiring what such sudden surge of exhilaration was all about, the answer will likely be brief – and yet pointing to a most complex facet of Thai everyday life: sanuk.
In essence, sanuk is interactive. To be precise, sanuk is shared, like when talking, listening, watching, giving and deriving pleasure, applauding. It is this quality which makes it obvious to observers and witnesses.
It has commonly been translated as something amusing, interesting like a play or fair, something jolly, cheery and agreeable. Likening sanuk summarily to fun is misleading. There is a resemblance only in as far as looking good-naturedly at the funny side of something goes. To make fun of something or someone in a derisive manner is not in the spirit of sanuk.
Sanuk ranges from the momentous flashing of the bright side to the institutionalized entertainment of yore, the like, a burlesque theatrical performance that can be compared to the commedia dell’arte.
The focus of sanuk is on a situation that may cause tension, or else may lend itself to exposing a certain comic touch.
What makes sanuk evolve ? What brings sanuk to life ? It takes one or few persons to kick it off, to get the ball rolling. The jolly talker is a popular fellow, woman as well as man. As sanuk is deeply ingrained in Thai culture and society, it is passed on through child socialization, from generation to generation. As a result, there is an abundance of talented people who have a sharp sense for the comic facet of a situation, who have a talent for quickness of repartee, who have the gift of playing on words, of making impromptu puns, and of hitting the punch line.
Essentials of sanuk include conditions or circumstances that are conducive to diverting attention from the dry and the serious. Those in a group who have a quick grasp would literally sense the right moment and seize on the opportunity to broach a boisterous quip.
Effects of sanuk are salutary and constructive. They include amusement, diversion, entertainment – all enjoyed to take one’s mind off things cumbersome or stressful. Animated, good-natured and witty joking and bantering, in short, sanuk, remains a vital element of quality of life in Thai society.
Manifestations of sanuk have undergone major changes in the sense that its spectrum has been widened. While sanuk still originates where people happen to meet by chance or gather explicitly for this purpose, modern information and communication technologies have enlarged the field. On one side, mass media reach vast audiences, from pre-school children enjoying cartoons to adults watching soap operas. On the other side, SMS using WAP facilitate the exchanges of personalized extempore slapsticks.
To conclude, sanuk is here to stay.
Taken from: Thailand: Traits and Treasures. The National Identity Board, Royal Thai Government 2005.
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