How to Politely Address People
In-depth explanations of titles, family terms, names, pronoun dropping, as well as addressing monks & royals
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Lingo Ninja Research Team
6 min read · first published June 13, 2021 · last update July 6, 2021

Introduction: How to address a person in Thai?

The right way to address someone in Thai depends on many factors: the situation, your relationship to the person, as well as the status and age of the other person. In this section, we try to give a short guideline on how to address someone, followed by more detailed explanations in the next sections. 

We assume you try to address a "common" Thai person. If you want to address monks or royalty, please look at the guidelines at the end of this article.

Formal situations

If you are not close to someone, or the situation is formal, you give the person the most respectful pronoun/title of which you know it fits:

1. Position
People in prestigious positions should be addressed by their title. Just using คุณ would be seen as disrespectful towards their position.

If you know the other person has a prestigious position or an occupation, you use that. E.g. professor อาจารย์ , doctor หมอ , taxi driver แท็กซี่
  • If you know the person's name use it after the title, e.g. อาจารย์ สมชาย
  • If you don't know the person's name, use คุณ , e.g. คุณ ครู , or คุณ หมอ
2. Age
Otherwise, chose a family term based on age: if the person is older than you, use พี่ . If the person is younger or serves you, use น้อง

Informal situations

If you don't know the person well, follow the rules for formal situations.

If you are introduced to the family of a Thai friend, you can use the same terms to address people as your Thai friend, but add คุณ before: E.g. คุณ แม่ , คุณ พ่อ , คุณ ยาย

If you are friends with someone, and the situation is not formal, you can use the nickname of the person, combined with พี่ or น้อง , e.g. พี่ หญิง , or น้อง หญิง .

If you are talking to a kid, you can use หนู .

Titles or occupations as personal pronouns

Titles or occupations are often used as personal pronouns. If you refer to someone else using a title or occupation, it is polite to put คุณ before them. 

Titles are used as first, second or third person pronouns (e.g. I, you, he, she, they):
  • อาจารย์ professor, university lecturer, teacher
    Exception: Don't put คุณ before อาจารย์
  • ครู teacher
  • หมอ doctor
  • พยาบาล nurse
Occupations are not used as first-person pronouns ("I"), e.g.:
  • นักบิน pilot
  • แท็กซี่ taxi driver
  • ตุ๊กตุ๊ก tuk-tuk driver

Examples

  • คุณ ครู
  • คุณ หมอ
  • คุณ พยาบาล
  • คุณ นักบิน
  • คุณ แท็กซี่
  • คุณ ตุ๊กตุ๊ก

  • อาจารย์ หญิง
  • หมอ หญิง

Family terms as personal pronouns

Family terms (also called "kin terms") are often used as first-, second-, or third-person pronouns. This can be confusing for Thai beginners. For example, depending on the context, the sentence พ่อ ไม่ ชอบ (Literally: father - not - like) can mean:
  • I don't like it (father is speaking)
  • You don't like it (someone talking to the father)
  • He doesn't like it (someone talking about the father)

List of common family terms

  • แม่ mother
  • พ่อ father
  • พี่ older brother/sister
  • น้อง younger brother/sister
  • ลูก child
  • ยาย grandmother (mother's mother)
  • ตา grandfather (mother's father)
  • ย่า grandmother (father's mother)
  • ปู่ grandfather (father's father)
  • หลาน grandchild
  • ป้า older sister of parents
  • ลุง older brother of parents
  • น้า younger brother/sister of mother
  • อา younger brother/sister of father

Family terms are also used outside the family

Family terms are handy in all types of situations. Especially พี่ (older brother/sister) and น้อง (younger brother/sister) are commonly used to address people outside the family or even strangers:
  • If you are older, you can refer to yourself as พี่ and to the other party as น้อง .
  • If you are younger, you flip it around and refer to yourself as น้อง while referring to the other party as พี่ .
  • Thais commonly address waiters and other people serving them as น้อง
  • Uncle/Aunt can also refer to friends of your parents. But you need to pick the right term depending on age and which parent, e.g. a younger friend of your father can be referred to as คุณ อา .

Combining family terms with names or คุณ 

Family terms are very often combined with names or nicknames, e.g. ป้า หญิง = Aunt Ying. They can also be combined with คุณ   to show respect, e.g. คุณ แม่ , คุณ พ่อ or คุณ อา .

Names as personal pronouns

Using names or nicknames instead of personal pronouns is very common among Thai speakers. Replacing the first person pronoun "I" with their nickname (or sometimes their name) is often done by women, but not so often by men. If names are used as  second or third person pronouns, they are often preceded by คุณ or family relationship terms like พี่ or น้อง :
  • คุณ + [first name / last name / nickname]
  • พี่ + [first name / last name / nickname]
  • น้อง + [first name / last name / nickname]
Some additional points:
  • Using your nickname is fine in most - except in very formal - situations. 
  • It is also one of the few ways men can refer to themselves when talking to a lover.

Examples

I don't know. (Ying is speaking)
หญิง ไม่ ทราบ
Literally: Ying - not - know

You know. / She knows. / Ying knows. (Someone else is talking about or to Ying)
พี่ หญิง ทราบ
Literally: older brother/sister - Ying - know

He/Mr. Somchai does know. (Someone else is talking about or to Mr. Somchai)
คุณ สมชาย ทราบ
Literally: Mr./Mrs. - Somchai - know

Dropping the pronoun

Dropping pronouns is something Thai people do very often. The simple rule is, if you can derive the pronoun out of context, you can drop it. This is appropriate for all types of situations, formal and informal.

This makes Thai a pronoun-dropping language (or short pro-drop language), similar to Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, Turkish, Spanish, and many other languages.

Note: As a Thai beginner, you might think you simply should adapt this technique and always drop all pronouns, as this technique can be used in all types of situations. But that conclusion would be wrong. This technique will only get you through part of the conversation. As soon as topics get more complicated you still need to use pronouns for clarity and to avoid ambiguity.

Example

With pronouns:
A: How are you?
   
คุณ สบายดี ไหม ครับ ?
B: I am fine.
   
ฉัน สบายดี ค่ะ

Without pronouns:
(It is clear from the context, that A is asking B, and B is talking about herself)
A: How are?
   
สบายดี ไหม ครับ ?
B: fine.
   
สบายดี ค่ะ

Addressing Buddhist monks

Speaking to monks utilizes a further complicated set of personal pronouns.

A monk speaking to you:
  • referring to himself (I): อาตมา
  • referring to you, a layperson: โยม
You speaking to a monk:
  • Referring to monks the age of one's grandfather: หลวง ตา
  • Referring to monks the age of one's father: หลวง พ่อ
  • Referring to monks somewhat older: หลวง พี่
  • Referring to younger monks: เณร
  • Referring to yourself: ดิฉัน , ผม

Addressing royalty

When members of royalty address you, they will not use special pronouns.  But you have to use special pronouns addressing members of the Royal Family:
  • referring to yourself ("I"): ข้าพพระพุทธเจ้า
  • referring to the King or Queen ("You"): ใต้ฝ่าละอองธุลีพระบาท
  • referring to high-ranking royalty ("You"): ใต้ฝ่าละอองพระบาท
Warning:
  • Do not use these words for fun! If you use them in the wrong context, your actions can be interpreted as disrespectful towards the Royal Family. This is a criminal offense in Thailand! 
  • If you have the honor to be in the presence of a member of the Royal Family, make sure you prepare yourself well. There are many other protocols to observe.

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