Thai culture and the importance of เกรงใจ…
Learning a language is not just about shoveling a bucket of grammar and vocabulary into your head until it explodes. You need to throw a chunk of culture in too. And then blend often, and well.
On the culture side, I believe that getting your head around the concept of เกรงใจ /kreng jai/ is an important part of understanding what makes Thailand tick. That without a working knowledge of เกรงใจ, you just might find yourself running around saying TiT (This is Thailand) more often than you should.
Do you remember when I wrote about heart words in my post, Heart Talk by Christopher G Moore? Well, เกรงใจ is a heart word too.
ใจ /jai/: mind, heart, spirit.
เกรง /kreng/: fear, be afraid of, be in awe of, dread
Fear seems a bit strong, but in English we use it softly softly as well: “I’m afraid I won’t be able to come today”. It doesn’t mean that we are quaking in our boots, right?
กลัว /glua/: to be scared, to fear
A little bit about Thailand’s class structure…
Getting away from spelling… Thailand has a class structure where เกรงใจ plays a significant role. For the sake of simplicity, in my post a senior (ผู้ใหญ่ /pôo yài/) is someone who is older or has a higher rank due to profession or income. Whereas a junior (ผู้น้อย /pôo nói/), is someone who is younger or lower in rank.
ผู้ใหญ่ /pôo yài/: senior, adult, elder
ผู้น้อย /pôo nói/: junior, inferior, subordinate
ผู้ /pôo/: person, people
ใหญ่ /yài/: to be big, large, great
น้อย /nói/: to be little, few, not many
ผู้น้อย /pôo nói/ is opposite of ผู้ใหญ่ /pôo yài/ in the sense of lower age/rank.
Whereas ลูกน้อง /lôok nóng/ is opposite of นาย /naai/ and เจ้านาย /jâo naai/.
ลูกน้อง /lôok nóng/: subordinate, underling
นาย/naai/: superior, master, boss
เจ้านาย /jâo naai/: boss, head, master
Thai Skype lessons with Khun Narisa…
My aim is obviously to talk about เกรงใจ, but I also wanted to show how fabulous Skype lessons are for increasing both your Thai language skills and knowledge of Thai culture. Because as we all know, culture and language go hand in hand.
I created the contents of this post from a Skype lesson with Thai teacher Khun Narisa (yes, she knows, and yes, she is waving at you :-)
Some of the questions below were asked with readers in mind, others because I needed to clarify เกรงใจ for myself. I needed to clarify because while I did know the basics of เกรงใจ, I wasn’t 100% sure of the fiddly bits. And lordy lordy, there be fiddly bits!
When discussing a subject such as เกรงใจ, it’s important to know who the information is coming from. Because a given, no society is homogeneous. In Thailand, each generation has their own twist on the Thai language and culture, as do those coming from the different areas (North, North-East, East, Central, and South).
Some of the new (younger) generation do not believe in being เกรงใจ as strongly as the older generations do. And some would คิดยังไงก็พูดยังงั้น /kít yang ngai gôr pôot yang ngán/ (speak whatever they think), while the older generation believe that one should be อ่อนนอกแข็งใน /òn nôk kăeng nai/ (soft on the outside, but solid and firm on the inside).
Khun Narisa falls in the 30-40ish age bracket, is well educated, and comes from a middle-class Bangkok background. But same as with the younger generation, someone in their 50’s ++ might have a slightly different opinion than Khun Narisa. I’m making this point because the explanations of เกรงใจ in this post are gathered from Khun Narisa’s personal experience. And that is important to know.
And here we go: A Thai Skype class on เกรงใจ…
Khun Narisa, could you please give us your description of เกรงใจ?
เกรงใจ is to be afraid of disturbing someone. For instance, “I’m afraid to wake you up if I walk loud. So I walk quietly, slowly”.
chăn dern-bao prór grayng jai wâa kun non yòo
I walk lightly because I’m afraid that you are asleep.
I see เกรงใจ as having two parts:
- Not causing discomfort to someone.
- Respecting someone of a higher rank or age.
But number one, not causing discomfort, is the main meaning of เกรงใจ.
ทำให้อึดอัด /tam hâi èut àt/: to cause discomfort
In your opinion, how important is เกรงใจ in Thai culture?
Very. It’s the same as the western concept of being well-bred. Being เกรงใจ is being considerate and having good manners, as opposed to being rude and inconsiderate to others. In Thailand, being เกรงใจ will either bind you or cut you from connections and opportunities in Thai society. By not being เกรงใจ, you will disturb the Thais you meet.
Here are two more jai/heart words:
รักษาน้ำใจ /rák-săa náam jai/ (keep water heart): to be considerate, to maintain the wellness in the heart (the happiness) of other people.
เอาใจ /ao jai/: to please, to behave well. It means to take a person’s heart into consideration, to please someone. But if the person is trying too much to please, it could be seen in a negative way .
My buddy Scott says that, “greng-jai is basically a feeling of not wanting to impose. Not wanting to put someone to any inconvenience on your behalf. If you offer to help someone and their answer is “greng-jai” then a similar answer in English would be “I wouldn’t want to be any trouble” or something like that.”
So Khun Narisa, with that in mind, would you please share a conversation with us? How about starting with the offer of buying lunch…
hâi chăn líang (kâao tîang) kun ná
Please let me buy you (lunch).
yàa loie kâ kreng jai
Don’t do it please (I don’t want to put you out).
ไม่เป็นไร ให้ฉันเลี้ยงเถอะ, เลี้ยงได้
mâi bpen rai hâi chăn líang tùh, líang dâi
It is no bother to me at all. Let me treat you (I) can treat you.
gôr dâi kâ
It’s ok then.
If someone takes up the offer right away, then a Thai could get the idea that the person is too quick to accept (and might even want to be taken care of). In Thailand, by being reluctant to take what is offered, you are showing that you have the ability to take care of yourself.
It’s all about personal dignity. In order to blend in with Thai culture, showing self-respect in this way is a Thai dance worth learning.
But what if you really don’t want to put someone out? If it’s not just a dance and you really are concerned for the person offering to pay? In that case, what do you say?
Two possible options are:
kŏr jàai ayng tùh
Let me pay by myself.
Or (depending on the situation) the little white lie:
ขอบคุณค่ะ แต่ตอนนี้งานยุ่ง คราวหน้าแล้วกัน
kòp kun kâ dtàe dton née ngaan yûng kraao nâa láew gan
Thank you but I’m busy at this time. Next time please.
Here is a scenario I’ve seen played out many times in Thailand:
A senior is talking to someone in a narrow hallway. As there is no other way around the two people deep in discussion, a junior is forced to walk between them, and when doing so, crouches down low. Is this behaviour from a junior to a senior being เกรงใจ?
That is showing respect to a senior by being เกรงใจ. Because if the junior rudely blocks the person the senior is talking to, then the senior might see it as a sign of disrespect; of the junior not being เกรงใจ to him or her.
Ok, so when a student sits on the floor at my feet, refusing my suggestion to sit in the chair next to me, is that เกรงใจ?
That’s when a student accepts your authority. They could sit next to you (the senior), no problem. These days, in a regular social setting, sitting at the foot of a senior is more about showing your respect, and not so much about เกรงใจ. It is your choice.
But if a student sits or stands higher than a senior, towering over them, then that is showing disrespect.
If the student is from the new generation, they might be a bit careless. But I don’t believe they would intentionally show disrespect. Disrespect is rare in Thai society.
ไม่เคารพผู้ใหญ่ /mâi kao-róp pôo yài/: not respecting the adult
When you feel เกรงใจ you have the thought that what you do might cause tiredness or trouble in the heart of the one you are thinking about.
For example, I’d really like to have Victoria Secret because they have super sexy underwear. Victoria Secrets can’t be easily found in Thailand so I think, “what if I give Madame money when she goes on a trip to her home country?”
But I worry that it would cause her trouble. First, she’s there to spend time with her family, not go shopping for me. And traveling to the shop would take time. Also, if she needed to hire a taxi, it would cost money. And when she got to Victoria Secrets she would have to take the time to choose what sizes and colours would suit me best. And after her purchase, she would have to carry the package back to Thailand and I know that she has a limited luggage allowance.
So you see, I might cause physical, emotional, or mental discomfort to you so I say, “never mind, I’ll just buy anything I can wear at Tesco”.
And that’s เกรงใจ.
When Thai teachers, parents, and adults see a younger person acting up, they will often correct them to have ความเกรงใจ /kwaam grayng jai/ (consideration, thoughtfulness). Do you only correct juniors who are known to you, or can you also correct a stranger on the street?
I wouldn’t correct just anyone on the street because some young people no longer believe in being เกรงใจ. I’d only correct a young child of elementary age and younger, those who still listen to older people.
ความเกรงใจ /kwaam grayng jai/: considerateness, thoughtfulness
มีความเกรงใจ /mee kwaam grayng jai/ to have consideration, thoughtfulness
Correct them with ความเกรงใจ /kwaam grayng jai/ is to gently correct them.
Correct them to have ความเกรงใจ /kwaam grayng jai/ is to correct them so they will be more thoughtful or considerate.
When you were growing up, how did you เกรงใจ your parents?
I tried to not cause inconvenience, discomfort, or be a burden.
On the subject of เกรงใจ and parents, could you please share an example?
Out late at night with a friend, she might say to me, “I don’t want to go home because it would be too dark in the night and I would have to ride in a taxi alone. Can I come and stay at your place instead? Even though I feel เกรงใจ to your parents because my movement around your home in the middle of the night might wake them up”.
chăn kreng jai kun pôr kun mâe ter jang loie
I’m afraid of disturbing your parents,
dtàe chăn kŏr bpai káang bâan ter dâi măi
but can I go sleep at your home?
What other aspects of เกรงใจ are there?
Being superior is also included but it’s not the main description of being เกรงใจ. The main meaning is to not cause inconvenience to the heart; to not cause physical tiredness or loss of energy.
Superior comes into it when someone older or with a higher rank feels that someone who is younger or is lower in rank has done something without caring about their feelings.
อย่างน้อย เขา ก็ควรเกรงใจฉันบ้าง
yàang nói kăo gôr kuan kreng jai chăn bâang
At least he/she should care about my feelings (as I am older/belong to higher rank).
Note that the phrase in parenthesis, “as I am older/belong to higher rank” is unspoken, understood.
They wouldn’t come out and say it to the person directly. But to get a bit of relief, they’d mention it to someone else instead. This is because in Thailand, ผู้ดี /pôo dee/ (well-bred people) wouldn’t talk straight to others. To some Thai people, it would be considered negative, having bad manners.
ผู้ดี /pôo dee/: well-mannered person
Btw, สมบัติผู้ดี /sŏm-bàt pôo dee/ is a book that teaches suitable manners. My generation had to read it when we were younger. If you like, we can discuss the contents in another lesson.
So anyway, a junior would เกรงใจ when showing respect to someone. And a senior would mention เกรงใจ if they are not getting the respect they felt was deserved.
In the west you believe that everyone is equal, no matter what age or rank. But in Thailand we say, “he/she should เกรงใจ me (because I’m older/more senior)”.
(kăo) gôr kuan kreng jai chăn bâang
(He/she) should เกรงใจ me some (because I’m older than him/her).
Or a friend would say to another friend:
kun kuan kreng jai ter bâang
You should เกรงใจ her (because she is older than you).
Then there is another side of เกรงใจ, the obsequious side, correct? In Working with the Thais, I read that when someone is too เกรงใจ they are known as ขี้เกรงใจ /khee kreng jai/.
The meaning of ขี้เกรงใจ /khee kreng jai/ is to have the obsessive habit of กรงใจ, sometimes without logical reason.
So a person who is ขี้เกรงใจ /khee kreng jai/ is someone who is obsequious?
They might be seen as weak, but not in the brown nose (ประจบ /bprà-jòp/) way. The ขี้เกรงใจ /khee kreng jai/ person doesn’t have the strength to think of the reasons he should be doing what he’s supposed to do. And this sometimes causes problems.
ประจบ /bprà-jòp/: brown nose, to flatter, fawn
Ah. So this is where คิดมาก /kít mâak/ comes into it?
คิดมาก /kít mâak/: thinking too much, worrying too much, taking something too personally.
Yes. But that’s not the only way the word คิดมาก /kít mâak/ is used (but we’ll save that for another class).
In the workplace being เกรงใจ can make it too slow to get things done on time. It’s like a kind of bureaucracy. They beat around the bush, never getting to the point.
So if one of your employees is being เกรงใจ too much, wasting your time, what phrase would you use?
mâi dtông kreng jai
No need to be fearful (you can say what you think).
This is said by a person of senior rank/age to a junior. Not the other way around. The seniors would expect the juniors to respect them.
But เกรงใจ is not just for juniors showing respect to seniors. Doesn’t it go in the other direction, and between equals as well?
Yes, เกรงใจ is also a consideration between equals and someone lower than you.
So if you are sitting on the floor and I want to walk past you, it wouldn’t matter if you were senior or junior, to เกรงใจ you I would say ขอโทษค่ะ /kŏr-tôht kâ/ “excuse me”. And if I come to your house I would เกรงใจ you by talking off my shoes at the door. Correct?
Yes. And if someone junior to you is sleeping, you wouldn’t do something loud because you wouldn’t want wake them up. And you wouldn’t want to disturb your neighbour by being noisy, so you would เกรงใจ them.
Basically, if you are being เกรงใจ, then you wouldn’t want to inconvenience those around you.
But in Thailand there is a problem with noise. Neighbours sing karaoke too loud or too late, or have noisy parties until the early morning hours.
The same as in any country, there are noisy neighbours in Thailand too. It comes down to the mindset of personal space, upbringing, etc.
Could you please explain personal space Thai-style?
Generally, people living in cities like Bangkok are taught to leave a small ventilation hole to let people into their personal space. This is น้ำใจ /náam jai/ (water + heart = kindness). The hole is even bigger in people from upcountry. Their agricultural-based society binds them closer their neighbors because they have to ask for help every once in a while. Members of the community are needed to assist with farm jobs, to build new houses, arrange ceremonies, weddings, births, funerals, etc. As individuals cannot accomplish this alone, they need to share their personal space with others.
I noticed that in Thailand there is a pecking order, with the juniors taking care of the seniors. In restaurants the juniors would order more food, make sure everyone’s glasses stay full, check to see that the table is laid out properly, such as that.
That’s not เกรงใจ, that’s a feeling of respect towards the seniors. The seniors wouldn’t mind if the juniors don’t refill their beer glass, order more food, or check to make sure the bill is correct. This behaviour is not expected; it’s not a rule.
But if the senior insists on paying for the meal, the junior would not refuse because the junior is supposed to เกรงใจ the senior in this cultural dance. If the junior refuses, the senior would feel bad because he wouldn’t be able to take care of the junior (ego). The senior then wouldn’t have the opportunity to show themselves as a higher power deserving of respect.
When thinking of เกรงใจ, remember the key word: Discomfort.
อึดอัด /èut àt/: discomfort
So here we are, at a table in a restaurant. The juniors are all running around taking care of the seniors = respect. This being Thailand, what with having a patronage system and all, the most senior of the group pays. Using this scenario, please introduce another เกรงใจ situation.
If the junior knows that the senior (who always pays) lost his wallet, or has had a cut in salary, then the junior might think of paying the bill.
But ego comes into it. The junior needs to be เกรงใจ because by the junior paying instead of the senior, the senior will feel that he is no longer important (causing harm to the senior’s ego). The senior will feel bad because he is not able to support the group. So if the junior does not เกรงใจ the senior, it will destroy the senior’s feeling of comfort.
So เกรงใจ ties in with a loss of face. The junior does not want to put the senior in a position of losing face?
เสียหน้า /sĭa nâa/: to lose face
รักษาหน้า /rák-săa nâa/: to keep someone’s face
And to avoid his senior suffering from a loss of face, the junior now has to handle the situation by being เกรงใจ?
Yes. The junior might make up a story like, “I won the lottery today, so let me pay”.
pŏm kreng jai têe jà bpen kon jàai
I’m afraid of offending the person who always pays.
pŏm gôr loie rák-săa nâa rûn pêe dûay gaan bòk wâa pŏm tòok lót-dter-rêe maa
As a result I save the seniors face by telling him that I won the lottery.
เพราะผม ไม่อยากให้ เขารู้สึก เสียหน้า
prór pŏm mâi yàak hâi kăo róo sèuk sĭa nâa
Because I don’t want to make him lose face.
And to make people happy, เกรงใจ can cause all sorts of made up stories. White lies. Because with เกรงใจ you might need to be diplomatic.
Made up stories: แต่งเรื่อง /dtàeng rêuang/
White lies: โกหกขาว /goh-hòk kăao/
Diplomacy: มีศิลป ในการพูด /mee sĭn-lá-bpà nai gaan pôot/ have the art of talking
Beating around the bush: พูดอ้อมๆ /pôot ôm/ to speak indirectly because of เกรงใจ
Farangs in Thailand often experience situations that they know are not quite right. The odd occurrences could very well be due to the made up stories, the white lies, the diplomatic ways, all caused from Thais being เกรงใจ. So think of it as Thai people not wanting to cause someone discomfort, unhappiness, loss of face, etc.
I’m forever having to say that I’m full (อิ่มแล้ว /ìm láew/). But I know that to refuse a gift of food might cause someone to be sad, and that’s not being เกรงใจ.
To get around this, while making both of us happy, I first say, “Thank you very much, I’m full”, ขอบคุณ ค่ะ อิ่มแล้ว /kòp kun kâ ìm láew/, and then take just a little bit of the food or drink. And if I am pressed to accept food or drink, I can always throw it away later (unseen, obviously).
In Borneo I was a vegetarian for years (towards the end, only in public). I did this in order to avoid eating a local dish made from meat.
So in Thailand, if you are vegan, vegetarian, Muslim, Jewish, or if your doctor says you cannot have certain foods, then you can excuse yourself from eating, is that correct? And if so, then I imagine you can also use one of the excuses as a little white lie?
Yes, you can use them as needed. Either as the truth or little white lies.
This phrase is useful (and this way they won’t prepare the same food for you next time):
gin mâi dâi kâ
Let me see if I can show เกรงใจ in a typical western business setting.
Number one: In the west, a business owner with a lucrative client will sometimes go to crazy lengths to keep that client. The business owner stays out late entertaining the client instead of being home with their family. They will say how lovely the client’s kids are, even if the kids are uglier than sin. The business owner will smile at the client and tell them whatever they want to hear (that hopefully won’t lose their reputation as a decision maker). Because if they don’t, they might upset the client and… no client.
Number two: Let’s say from bad experience that you know that your boss does not like to listen to dissenting opinions. When someone tries to tell the boss that he is wrong, the boss loses his temper. So instead of causing him distress and perhaps losing your job, you tell him what he wants to hear. Would this be เกรงใจ?
But with the true sense of เกรงใจ, the reason you don’t want to upset your client or boss is because you don’t want to cause them unhappiness. It’s not about keeping the client or staying employed. We just want them to be happy. That’s it. They can go ahead and buy from someone else, or hire someone else.
Let’s say that my friend teaches a student who doesn’t dance very well. I’m not a dance expert so I would not tell the parents that the student doesn’t have a future in dance. I have to feel เกรงใจ because it would cause unhappiness in the parent’s heart if I told them so. And I don’t want to cause someone unhappiness.
On the other hand, let’s say I was a dance teacher and I had a student who was terrible. And this dance student expected to have a successful career in dance. Then yes, I would say something because it costs the parents money and I don’t want to be wasteful with their money. Even so, I would still find a way to be gentle (เกรงใจ) with the news.
So what if your friend was wearing something that looked really awful. Awful enough that people were laughing and joking about her behind her back. And what if you knew that if your dear friend found out she’d be embarrassed and her heart would hurt. What would you do? In that situation, how do you เกรงใจ her?
There is another way: Truth talk.
จริงใจ /jing jai/: sincere (for truth telling)
Is truth talk the same as คิดยังไงก็พูดยังงั้น /kít yang ngai gôr pôot yang ngán/ (speak what one thinks)?
Kind of. But คิดยังไงก็พูดยังงั้น /kít yang ngai gôr pôot yang ngán/ can be seen as having less manners. Even with truth talk, you should เกรงใจ a little. You can speak the truth, but in a gentle way.
How would you use จริงใจ /jing jai/ (truth talk) in a sentence with a friend?
jing jai gôr dâi
You can be truthful with me.
How acceptable is truth talk in a เกรงใจ society?
In my personal opinion, you would truth talk when the listener:
- is open to the truth.
- knows that it would cause trouble in society if the listener didn’t know the truth.
- understands that it would cause the listener personal embarrassment by not being told the truth.
But before the truth talk, first apologise for having to tell the truth, and then explain the reason for the truth talk (society, personal embarrassment, etc). In that way, the recipient would be more open to listening.
So you are with a friend who is being เกรงใจ to you but you want the truth instead. What do you say?
mâi dtông kreng jai pôot maa loie
Don’t have to เกรงใจ, say it right away!
Rounding up the discussion about เกรงใจ, over all, what important advice would you like to share?
On the subject of เกรงใจ, I would suggest to foreigners that balancing both เกรงใจ and respect is the key. With เกรงใจ you won’t be able to give the full truth and reality, but without เกรงใจ you might be seen as rude or blunt. Then, Thai people might stop wanting to talk with you, or might not feel comfortable working with you.
Thank you Khun Narisa. Just speaking for myself, learning more about เกรงใจ has been extremely helpful.
The main vocabulary introduced…
to be afraid of offending (someone)/to be considerate: เกรงใจ /kreng jai/
thinking too much, worrying too much, taking something personally: คิดมาก /kít mâak/
to be scared, to fear: กลัว /glua/
to be considerate: รักษาน้ำใจ /rák-săa náam jai/
to have consideration, thoughtfulness: มีความเกรงใจ /mee kwaam kreng jai/
to respect: เคารพ /kao-róp/
the respect: ความเคารพ /kwaam kao-róp/
to be disrespectful: ไม่เคารพ /mâi kao-róp/
to be rude: หยาบคาย /yàap kaai/
to be sincere: จริงใจ /jing jai/
to please, to behave well: เอาใจ /ao jai/
to lose face: เสียหน้า /sĭa nâa/
to save face: รักษาหน้า /rák-sĭa nâa/
to have discomfort: อึดอัด /èut àt/
to be overly fearful, modest, timid: ขี้เกรงใจ /khee kreng jai/
sincere (for truth telling): จริงใจ /jing jai/
excuse me: ขอโทษค่ะ /kŏr-tôht kâ/
made up stories: แต่งเรื่อง /dtàeng rêuang/
white lies: โกหกขาว /goh-hòk kăao/
diplomacy: มีศิลป ในการพูด /mee sĭn-lá-bpà nai gaan pôot/
beat around the bush: พูดอ้อมๆ /pôot ôm/
senior: ผู้ใหญ่ /pôo yài/
junior: ผู้น้อย /pôo nói/
person, people: ผู้ /pôo/
to be big, large, great: ใหญ่ /yài/
to be little, few, not many: น้อย /nói/
subordinate, underling: ลูกน้อง /lôok nóng/
superior, master, boss: นาย /naai/
boss, head, master: เจ้านาย /jâo naai/
well-mannered person: ผู้ดี /pôo dee/
Studying the Thai language, Thai culture…
Since starting my Thai studies I’ve learned that you cannot get the full essence of Thai culture from books or audio files. You need help from someone either born into Thai society, or raised in Thailand: Friends, lovers, wives and husbands, or someone like Skype teacher Khun Narisa.
If you are interested in taking Thai language and culture lessons via Skype, Khun Narisa comes highly recommended. By me.
And if you want Khun Narisa and myself to continue on with posts such as these, just let us know.