The phrase ‘same same, but different’ has hopped over Thailand’s borders and into the discourse of travellers in Southeast Asia and beyond. It’s joined other catchphrases that are rarely taken seriously like ting tong (‘crazy’) and the infamous ‘love you long time’. While these days it’s often said jokingly, the expression still has cultural roots. So where did it come from and what does it really mean?
The Tinglish (Thai-English) phrase ‘same same, but different’ means ‘similar’. While its precise origins are largely unknown, it’s likely that this construction originally appeared when Thais who were learning English tried to converse with visitors. Today, you’ll hear it used frequently during your travels around Thailand, including by Thais who are fluent in English and use it to be humorous while chatting with overseas visitors.
You’ll find the iconic Thai phrase ‘same same, but different’ printed on T-shirts and other souvenirs throughout the kingdom. Same Same But Different is also the title of a German romance film that was based on a true story and first released in 2009. While the film is set in Cambodia, the lead actress is Thai. The phrase is also the title of a song that appears on the Bombay to Bangkok (2008) soundtrack, a Bollywood film. In addition, Koh Lanta, an island in southern Thailand, features a restaurant with this name. Wherever you go in Thailand, this catchphrase will be hard to escape!
One Urban Dictionary entry suggests the phrase is used to describe “subtle nuances”, while another accurately states that it’s commonly encountered during attempts to sell something. Head to a market and ask whether a suspect-looking designer product is the real deal, for example, and you might hear ‘same same, but different’. Urban Dictionary also defines the phrase as ‘just about anything depending on what the user is trying to achieve’.
Beyond its meaning as something being ‘similar’, the tagline arguably has deeper roots in Thai culture. The intentional vagueness it conveys — that something is both the same and yet different, and therefore neither the same nor different — resembles the vagueness that’s inherent in the Thai language itself. It’s not uncommon to get to the end of a fairly involved conversation with a Thai person and for both parties who are fluent in Thai to have only a limited idea of what the other actually meant (even if neither will admit it).
Linguistically, Thai relies heavily on context, often allowing for the omission of pronouns, articles and other markers that are mandatory (or at least essential to meaning) in other languages. For example, the English sentence “I am going to the market” requires a pronoun (‘I’), the present continuous verb form (‘am going’), preposition (‘to)’, article (‘the’) and noun (‘market’). But Thai speakers can easily get away with just two words: the verb and noun. The perfectly formed Thai sentence bai talat literally translates to ‘go market’.
Similarly, there is almost no differentiation between singular and plural nouns. Sometimes the noun is repeated a second time to indicate it’s meant to be plural (although this is rare), while adjectives are also repeated to express particular strength (hence ‘same same’). In written Thai, it’s normal to not leave spaces between individual words — only been clauses and sentences — which may further add to the ambiguity of a text.
The mai bpen rai attitude of ‘no worries’ dominates the Thai approach to life. Thais commonly avoid confrontation, or simply too much stress, by brushing off awkward or difficult encounters and uttering the phrase mai bpen rai, or ‘don’t worry about it’. In Thailand, someone may show up to a meeting half an hour late, accidentally knock over someone’s drink in a bar or find that they are a few baht short when settling up for pad thai and they’ll likely get a simple mai bpen rai in return, a way to quickly diffuse the situation for both parties.
It makes sense that the same concept extends to the employment of ‘same same, but different’ in everyday discourse. Why fret too much over whether that Prada bag at the night market is real or not? Instead, settle on the fact that it’s ‘same same’, or presumably close enough, and move on.
‘Same same, but different’ also illustrates Thai culture’s keenness on saving face. Describing something as ‘same same’ (even if it’s significantly different) is a way to answer a question vaguely, without actually saying “no” (or “it’s different”). Saying “no” might cause one or both parties to lose face and makes the other look bad. Simply claiming that something is ‘same same’ could provide an easy way out for everyone.
Have a friendly disagreement with a Thai, where they describe something one way, and you say, “no, it’s actually such and such,” and you might be met with a chuckle and the response“it’s same same”, as a way of downplaying the situation and the fact that someone may be wrong.
For the most part, this addition appeared in recent years as the phrase came into common parlance as a kind of satirical take on its conventional use.
Fluent-English-speaking Thais — along with those who have spent extensive time overseas, and those who have foreign friends — recognise that ‘same same’ may sound odd to a native English speaker (especially when it’s being used to describe something inherently different). In that typical Thai way of saving face and using humor whenever possible, the ‘but different’ add-on became a way to make light of the whole phrase. After all, mai bpen rai.