April 25, 2019

Demystifying Kreng Jai

 

Kreng Jai, which literally means “awe of heart” but can best be translated into “consideration”, is a cause of much frustration for foreigners who live in Thailand or foreigners with Thai partners. The concept of Kreng Jai is an important on in Thai culture and has been characterized as “the essence of Thai-ness”, but what specifically this nature entails can be hard to describe.

Kreng Jai manifests itself as a general desire not to disrupt the happiness of others, even at the expense of efficiency, honesty, or one’s own interests. When guidebooks describe Thai people as being “accommodating”, they are (perhaps unconsciously) describing the effects of Kreng Jai.

Kreng Jai is usually a function of feeling uncertain or distanced from from people and desiring to avoid offending them; as such Kreng Jai is usually not a factor among nuclear families, or between couples, who are close enough to show their true feelings and avoid formality; Kreng Jai is a greater concern for foreigners who are establishing relationships with new in-laws and new Thai acquaintances.

Kreng Jai might affect the lives of guileless foreigners living in Thailand in a number of ways. When a coworker fails to correct an error you’ve made in a meeting because he doesn’t want to embarrass you, he’s feeling Kreng Jai. When your spouse refuses to send back a meal at a nice restaurant even though the dish is substandard, she’s feeling Kreng Jai. When a salesperson assures you that a delivery can absolutely, certainly, definitely be made within a required time frame but even if said time frame turns out to be impossible….that salesperson is certainly feeling Kreng Jai.

There’s also flip side to Kreng Jai – when foreigners cause offense by misinterpreting or abusing Thai feelings of consideration or concern. A young Thai woman who feels offended by the behavior of an older foreign man may feel unable to correct him due to the constraints of Kreng Jai, which then allows the offending individual in question to continue his bad behavior.  A Thai coworker may be grossly offended if you critique his work in blunt, critical terms. In return for their consideration of others , Thais expect to have their own feelings considered as well. Too often, foreigners grossly insult Thais by thoughtlessly accepting their consideration and generosity without offering any in return – or worse, by interpreting Kreng Jai as a sign of weakness that can be exploited.

Sadly, there’s no real manual on Kreng Jai, and its a skill that can only be learned through repeated exposure to Thai culture. Our main advice to foreigners is to twofold:

1) When dealing with the frustrations and inefficiencies that occur when and individual feels (and acts on) Kreng Jai towards you, take a deep breath and tell yourself “Mai Ben Rai“.  The concepts of Kreng Jai is as old as Thai culture and definitely isn’t going anywhere. If you wish to live in Thailand, marry a Thai spouse, or interact with Thais at all, you’ll just have to accept the little delays that at side effects of receiving such consideration.

2) Avoid abusing Thai feelings of Kreng Jai by practicing treating those you interact with deference and respect. Notice how your Thai coworkers and acquaintances interact with you, and mimic these behaviors, as they’re probably a good example of how these individuals expect to be treated. If your coworkers never interrupt you, never interrupt them. If your new friend continually offers you rides, try politely refusing and offering to transport him somewhere instead.

Kreng Jai is essentially a dance – a figurative give-and-take of consideration and good manners. To give Kreng Jai is to receive it… so go forth, readers, and be considerate.

Comments

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Trackbacks

  1. […] Understanding “Kreng Jai” in Thai Culture – This video represents a common scenario that is often most misunderstood by westerners about the act of Kreng Jai, which literally means “fearful heart”. […]

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