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Greng Jai

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Greng Jai

Greng Jai


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Thailand - Greng Jai


เกรงใจ (greng jai)

Greng jai is an adjective, therefore, someone is greng jai. Prefixing kwaam will turn it into a noun.

ความเกรงใจ (kwaam greng jai)

This is one of the many jai expressions in Thai. The word jai means heart/mind/spirit and when used idiomatically with other words it makes expressions that describe feelings. The word greng means to fear or be afraid.

The literal meaning doesn't really make any sense and to fully understand the idiomatic meaning, and how it affects Thai behaviour, you really need to live in Thailand for a while. However, I will try to explain it below.

As with most aspects of Thai cultural behaviour there is a basic definition (in this case, not to want to impose on someone), but there are many nuances. Also, as with other aspects of Thai cultural behaviour, what starts off as being reasonable is taken to such an extreme limit that it can result in some very strange behaviour.

To make matters worse, when different elements of Thai cultural behaviour are combined it starts to get very confusing. When you combine greng jai with poot ao jai (the Thai notion of always speaking to please others) it starts to become very difficult knowing what to believe when you are told something.

After I first arrived in Thailand to live there were times when I became intensely frustrated because of Thai behaviour. It was made all the worse because some behaviour was completely irrational and I didn't understand the cause.

I still get frustrated at times, but at least these days I normally understand the underlying reasons for the strange behaviour.

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When I arrived in Thailand to live I was very eager to learn Thai and bought a number of dictionaries, phrase books and language learning guides. One small phrasebook provided some jai words and gave the following definition for greng jai:

"You are sitting in a non-smoking taxi. You do not care about this and smoke. The taxi driver does not say anything and lets you smoke. He is 'greng jai'.

This example isn't necessarily wrong, but it highlights one of the major problems concerning most books written about Thai culture. If you read this definition, you just think it is about tolerance. After living in Thailand for a long time, however, you realise that all of the Thai cultural concepts go much, much deeper.

There is great tolerance in Thailand and a powerful part of the Thai psyche is about doing as you please and allowing others to do as they please. This attitude makes for a very relaxed environment to spend a vacation, but when you live in Thailand it can start to feel quite different.

I can actually provide a similar 'smoking' example from my own experience. I detest smoking and was eating at a restaurant that was plastered with 'No Smoking' signs all over the walls.

A group of Malaysian men at a nearby table started smoking. I was horrified and called over the manager. He told me not to worry and explained that as they were Malaysian they couldn't understand the 'No Smoking' signs - the same signs that are used universally in every country in the world.

A little later a waitress went to the table and I thought that maybe she would ask them to stop smoking. No. She gave them an ashtray.

Some expats I have spoken to like Thailand for this very reason. It's convenient sometimes, but overall it's not a good thing. Take parking, for instance.

Once in the UK I parked in an illegal spot for a couple of minutes to put a heavy bag into my car. A passing policeman saw me and started to act as if he had just witnessed a bank robbery. I was spoken to like a hardened criminal, fined, and had three points put on my license.

In Thailand I can park anywhere knowing that no action will be taken against me. I don't because my basic instincts won't allow me to do so, but this doesn't apply to Thai drivers. They just park in active lanes and put the entire lane out of action.

This causes huge traffic jams, but they don't care. Due to greng jai (and also selfish attitudes) they expect to be able to do whatever they want to do and they expect others to be tolerant of their behaviour.

Considering that greng jai is supposed to be about not imposing on others, many Thais do exactly the opposite. They aren't greng jai, but they expect other people to be greng jai concerning their obnoxious behaviour.

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Not Imposing On Others

This is another aspect of greng jai and at first it sounds quite reasonable. No reasonable person, regardless where they are from, would impose on another person without good reason. We all try not to impose on busy people and if someone does a favour for free we don't keep going back and asking for more favours.

However, this unwillingness to impose is much more pronounced in Thailand and there is the additional issue regarding social hierarchy that is taken very seriously in Thailand.

No one is equal in Thailand. Everyone has their place and everyone knows their status, as well as knowing the status of people they deal with. There is extreme reluctance to impose on someone who is higher in the social hierarchy, even when it is what a person should be doing as part of their job.

Teachers are accorded quite a high social status in Thailand, but if you teach in Thailand and ask if there are any problems or questions you will never get a response. There are many reasons for this - apathy, laziness, shyness, but there is also greng jai - not wanting to impose on a teacher.

If you have a problem staying at a hotel you will deal with the front desk staff, who are quite low in the pecking order and are not empowered to do anything. Their low status means that they won't have the power or authority to do much. The power and authority lie with people higher up, but the staff won't want to escalate the problem because of greng jai.

If you are dealing with someone who doesn't have the power to do anything and who also refuses to interfere with the people higher up in the organisation, it means that nothing will be done. The Thai person will smile a lot and try to fob you off with excuses or promises, but nothing will actually get done.

Greng jai takes many forms. On a hot day you may offer a Thai a drink and they decline because of greng jai. There are so many times when I have to think whether an answer I have been given is true, or the person is being greng jai.

At times I have to say, "Mai dtong greng jai," which means, "You don't need to be greng jai."

With time and experience it gets easier to see through greng jai behaviour, but there are still times even now when I don't know whether a Thai is being greng jai, and neither does my Thai wife.

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Not Interfering

As with all aspects of Thai cultural behaviour, greng jai sounds quite reasonable at first (a simple reluctance to impose on others, which is understandable), but it is taken to an extreme degree and starts to cause problems.

In his book 'Money Politics, Globalisation and Crisis - The Case of Thailand', John Laird states that certain elements of Thai cultural behaviour were to blame for the Asian financial crisis of 1997. One of these was greng jai. Here is a passage from the book. (The author uses a different transliteration of the word, but I will stick with my own transliteration.)

"In conjunction with the notion of kaurop, the Thai attitude of greng jai is seen as another major impediment to informed decision making. Greng jai is a form of etiquette governing one's personal behaviour which requires that one should avoid intervening in another's affairs, avoid contradicting or upsetting someone.

Thus, one should not challenge or question the actions of others (particularly those who are equal or higher status). It seeks to avoid personal confrontation, especially in face to face situations. Hence, disagreement is sometimes conveyed through intermediaries."

This desire to avoid any personal confrontation is very strong. In my own experience I have found that Thais will use written signs or notices to express dissatisfaction, rather than to confront the problem in person.

If the parents at my daughter's school do something that the school doesn't like no one will say anything, but a notice will appear the next day telling people not to do what isn't liked.

Flytipping - the dumping of rubbish in authorised places is a big problem in Thailand. Rather than the local authorities attempting to catch and prosecute the offenders, they will just put up signs.

Thais have no regard at all for public spaces and will just set up temporary shops and food stalls on busy pavements, thus blocking access and causing safety hazards. Again, the owner of the land won't say anything directly, but will just erect a sign. I never see the local police trying to catch drivers who break traffic laws, but they put up lots of signs.

Erecting signs that tell other people not to do things allows Thais to avoid confrontation, but it doesn't do much good because people simply ignore the signs.


Do not sell things here

Do not sell things here


Do not discard rubbish

Do not discard rubbish


The worrying thing is that Thais will not interfere in another person's affairs even if those affairs are plainly wrong. I have seen comments on Thai expat forums to the effect that if Thais observe a person who is obviously attempting to steal something, such as a motorbike, they won't do anything. This is true.

There is a pragmatic reason for this, in that many Thais are violent and vindictive, and to confront such people would be dangerous. However, there is also the greng jai aspect of not wanting to intervene in another person's affairs.

Thailand has some of the most dangerous roads in the world and, once again, greng jai is one of the problems. While driving you observe things that are almost unbelievable and that, in other countries, would result in fines, driving bans, or even imprisonment. But in Thailand, reckless and dangerous drivers aren't punished.

If I was so inclined, which I'm not, I could drive in exactly the same reckless fashion knowing that I could get away with it. Drivers can do anything on Thai roads, but there is one thing you can't do.

If you encounter a reckless driver (and I encounter them every day) who is putting your own life in danger, as well as the lives of your family or other people, you cannot challenge that driver.

Thais have an expectation that they can do whatever they want and because of the powerful notion of greng jai they believe that other people - even the police - do not have the right to intervene in their affairs. To them it doesn't matter that their affairs are being conducted in the public domain and constitute a danger to the general public, they still believe they have the right to do what they want and that no one has the right to tell them otherwise.

Living in Thailand has many good points, but this kind of prevailing attitude concerns me greatly.

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I hope that my explanation has helped to explain this concept and from what I have written you should be able to tell that because of greng jai it can be very difficult to get at the truth when dealing with Thais.

What makes things worse is that there are many aspects of Thai cultural behaviour and when you deal with a Thai you will be dealing with not one aspect, but many.

To use an English expression, Thais don't wear their hearts on their sleeves. What you are told and what you see is very unlikely to indicate how the person really thinks or feels. Outwardly Thais will act happily when they are sad, will decline things that they want, and will refuse to ask people for help or escalate problems when they don't know the answer.

After many years of living and dealing with Thais it starts to become easier to work out what is going on, but even after a long time you still find that Thais hide their thoughts, feelings and intentions very well.

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