Never Say Best

I was at one of my usual haunts for dinner in Phuket, and after a month of great food, wanted to properly express my appreciation. I looked up the words, got the sentence construction correct, and told the cook, after the meal, "Your food is the best in Phuket".

Her reaction was a mixture of terror and offense. "No," she corrected my Thai, "You mean to say nee ahan pom chawp mak - I like this food a lot." We bantered back and forth, me insisting that it was the best I'd had out of a bunch of places, her demurring in that foreigners say terrifying things sometimes way.

I got an almost identical reaction from a second cook when I said it again. Shock, and offense. Over the years, I've told lots of people their stuff was the best. It's kind of a Steven thing. But here, it's offending people. What's going on?

Weeks later, I've finally worked it out.

It's not what I'm saying about them. It's what I'm saying about me.

It's that "this is the best food" is a plainly pretty arrogant thing to say. In saying it, the speaker presumes to know every single person, their tastes and preferences, and have perfect knowledge of all the options. They also claim to be a culinary expert, able to discern every nuance of flavor. And, they're certain that no future information, nothing that could ever happen in their life, would change their statement. Best is a fact.

In the West, we fling bests around without a care. They're salvos in a battle for identity, fought publicly. Chevys are the best trucks on the planet and if you don't agree, you're an idiot. If I believe it, it must be true. For everyone.

Here, the opposite. Belief is a closely held thing, a tender and sacred nest. You don't go flinging your beliefs, what works for you, around as truths. Truth shifts and changes. You learn and grow. The world unfolds itself. You unfold yourself in it. You find, in time, yourself, paper-thin in the wind.

In the face of that reality, there's really only one true, one honest way to give praise.

This thing - I like it a lot.