Thai culture and the importance of “Kreng Jai”
If you live in Thailand for long enough and are trying to speak a bit of Thai you will most certainly come across the phrase of “Kreng Jai” which literally translated would mean “awe of heart”. A better translation however would be ‘consideration’. This ‘kreng jai” quite often leads to quite some confusion for foreign expatriates here in Thailand though. While the concept of Kreng Jai is quite important in Thai culture the confusion among foreigners even leads to lots of frustration. Therefore it is important to understand what Kreng Jai means and how it influences everyday life in the Land of Smile.
When trying to explain Kreng Jai it is best described as a kind of desire that prevents you from disrupting the happiness of others.
This goes further than one might think though. Kreng Jai is also thought to be given and obeyed to even if it is at the expense of efficiency, honesty or even your own interests. When you ask friends or read books like the lonely planet you will quite likely hear or read something like ‘Thai people are very warm and caring’ – that is part of Kreng Jai.
Generally speaking Kreng Jai often is rooted in a feeling of uncertainty and the desire not to offend other people. Therefore you might not encounter Kreng Jai among close friends or couples. When you are a foreigner though who tries to build up new relationships here in Thailand Kreng Jai becomes quite important.
In the beginning I mentioned that Kreng Jai often leads to confusion or frustration among foreigners. Let’s look at some examples when that could occur:
- A coworker doesn’t correct an error of you during a meeting or in front of others because he does not want to embarrass you – he is feeling Kreng Jai.
- If your Thai girlfriend does not want to return a dish that does not fit expectations in a nice restaurant – she feels Kreng Jai.
- If someone tells you that your request will be fullfilled in a certain timeframe even if it seems to be impossible (and then turns out to be impossible) – that person feels Kreng Jai.
- If you are walking around Bangkok and asking for directions and someone sends you, totally confident, into the wrong direction – that person feels Kreng Jai.
Kreng Jai however does not always come in those colors. Foreigners can also cause offense by handling Kreng Jai the wrong way. Let’s say an older foreigner behaves badly towards a younger Thai girl she might feel Kreng Jai for him and won’t correct him so he will continue his bad behavior.
Or, what happened to me when I first moved to Thailand, a Thai coworker might be really offended if you criticize his work straight forward (even if you use polite wording).
Since Thais show Kreng Jai, they expect the same from you. For us foreigners it is sometimes a one-way road. We accept the Thai Kreng Jai towards us but don’t show Kreng Jai back (since we are not used to it).
As you can see understanding Kreng Jai is not easy and handling it the right way simply needs a lot of understanding and experience. Therefore there are only a few things that one could work on:
When you are frustrated with the ineffectiveness that comes along with Kreng Jai that is being shown towards you you can try to do it like Thais and say ‘Mai pen rai’ (“no problem, no worries” – and yes, I’m serious). Kreng Jai has been around Thailand forever and neither you nor any other foreigner that comes here will just change that.
Try not to use the Kreng Jai feeling of Thais towards you for your own good. Copy how Thai coworkers and friends act and interact with you and try to show them the same amount of Kreng Jai.
In its essence Kreng Jai is a give and take. Back and forth. It’s about showing and receiving consideration and good manners.
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