Being Heard in Thai (in Thai)
Besides the technical difficulty of speaking the language, there is an additional hurdle to being understood in Thailand. When approached by a foreign stranger, sometimes Thais are not “in Thai mode,” and they may completely miss the meaning because they expect to hear English. Really, expecting English is a perfectly rational reaction, given the ratio of foreign speakers to non-speakers. The problem is, while in the wrong language mode, a listener will not understand even the most well-executed statement. Most people have experienced this when they hear a foreign language from others in earshot or from the television, and it has this sort of spooky similarity to gibberish in their own language.
The solution is to make a Thai switch over to Thai mode before you communicate anything substantive. I have had some success by using the phrase หวัดดีคับ before I say anything. This is course the common Thai shortening of the formal สวัสดีครับ, but as a foreigner, there is a world of difference between สวัสดีครับ and หวัดดีคับ. The former means “I am a tourist” while the latter means “I have been here a while.” In my opinion, that is all it takes to be interpreted correctly the first time.
Whenever I hail a Taxi, or enter a shop, or pretty much do anything with a stranger, I always start with หวัดดีคับ exactly. It’s not informal, it’s a message with meaning, and I think it helps quite a bit. In general, as a foreigner, the informal spoken expressions are crucial to master as they will flip the subconscious switch of some listeners who may otherwise be unprepared to listen. So, for example, เอ๊โทษคับ is another one I use to flag down a guard when asking how to get someplace.