Origin and Meaning of: “Same Same, But Different” [UPDATED DECEMBER 2020]
If you’ve been to Southeast Asia, chances are you’ve heard the phrase ‘same same, but different’, especially if Thailand was a spot on the list. From street vendors to business people, this phrase is used by anyone who knows even the slightest bit of English. Tourists will giggle with enthusiasm or roll their eyes when they hear this. It all depends on how many times you’ve heard it that day, or how many times someone has tried to sell you a fake Prada bag by saying it’s ;same same, but different’.
This phrase that we all know and love (or hate), is a staple in Thai vernacular to get a simple point across. ‘Same same, but different’ essentially means it’s fundamentally different with the slightest similarity, but who cares?
Where did this saying originate from, and who said it first? Also, why has it become a part of Thai culture? Let’s take a look at the origin and meaning of ‘same same, but different’ to get to the bottom of these questions. So the next time you’re in Thailand and hear someone say the famous phrase, you’ll know exactly why they’re saying it.
You can hear this saying being used in many Southeast Asian countries, particularly Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, but mostly Thailand. There are many theories as to where the actual phrase came from.
Some say it originated from Vietnam during the Vietnam War where it was used by the US military to communicate with the Vietnamese people.
Some say it originated from the Thai language itself. This article explains, since there is no difference between singular and plural nouns in the Thai language, in order to express a noun as plural, a noun is sometimes repeated. Which could be the reason why ‘same same’ exists as it as an English variation of the way Thai is spoken (“Tinglish”).
This debate cannot be won. Let’s face it, the phrase has become so popular, pinpointing its exact origin would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. All we know for sure is, Thailand has taken it and it and ran with it!
What does it all mean:
Just as it is difficult to pinpoint the phrase’s exact origin, its meaning is also up for debate. Some believe it is meant to be sarcastic. Others believe it’s used to describe things that are fundamentally different, but have the slightest similarity.
Another theory in the mix is that the phrase is inherently laid back and laissez-faire, which is a direct reflection of the Thai culture. A kind of ‘don’t worry be happy’ sort of vibe.
The Thai laid back nature stems from an even larger social branch in their culture which is saving face. The Thai people avoid confrontation and don’t like to bring up anything negative, which is why ‘same same, but different’ may exist. It is used as a way to brush off an uncomfortable situation by bringing light to the conversation in hopes to turn a bad situation into an enjoyable one. When you break down the actual phrase, it sounds quite contradictory, so it would be great to use in a situation where you are butting heads with someone on a topic and use it as a way to ‘agree to disagree’.
The phrase may have started decades ago, however it has staying power. With the increasing number of foreigners visiting Thailand each year, locals have ramped up their sales strategies to make some extra dollars from willing travelers, especially since the Thai economy depends heavily on tourism. Since not all Thai know a whole lot of English, they rely on what they’ve picked up along the way. ‘Same same, but different’ is the running slogan at any vendor’s shop. This sales pitch doesn’t seem to get old for them. Tourists love it or hate it. Either way, it works because its popularity among vendors has not let up. It’s so popular, these vendors decided to print the phrase on t-shirts to sell to the tourists. Talk about knowing your market!
Want to learn more about Thailand? Check out our last post Off the Beaten Path in Phuket.
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