Thai Values 101: Decoding Greng Jai for Foreigners

Greng jai among co-workers in Thailand
Greng jai is a Thai trait that desires to please others by not inconveniencing them.

It’s a hot summer day and you’re strolling through the Land of Smiles for the first time with your Thai friend. She’s warm and hospitable, generously showing you all the interesting places and animatedly telling you their history and customs.

You’re enjoying every moment of it and greatly appreciate your companion’s friendliness and generosity.

Seeing her sweating profusely and a bit tired from all the walking like you are, you offer to buy her a cool drink and to rest for a bit.

She fans herself and wipes away her sweat but immediately says no and reassures you that she’s fine.

You look at her with confusion, convinced she’s definitely in need of hydration. Asking her again, she responds with the same “No” with a timid smile that now makes you bewildered instead of relieved.

You let go of the conversation but deep inside you’re trying to make sense of it all, asking yourself, “Why is she saying that?”

The short and long answer is Greng Jai.

What is Greng Jai?

Greng jai is a distinct Thai characteristic that is widely commended in relationships and in society and yet, is quite complicated and usually misunderstood.

เกรงใจ in English roughly translates to “consideration” but its meaning encompasses more than what this noun suggests. Greng jai is not just an act. It is also a feeling, a trait, and a custom in dealing with others.

Literally, “greng” means “fear, be afraid of, be in awe of, dread,” while “jai” means “mind, heart, spirit.” Put together, you might get something like “awe heart” which is far from an accurate description of what the word actually means.

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In its essence, it’s the desire not to cause discomfort to others because of the fear of being a burden to them. It is closely tied to saving face in public and keeping harmony in relationships.

It’s a highly valued trait in Thai culture which gives much importance to appearances and hierarchy.

At first glance, it’s a laudable characteristic showing respect, politeness, and consideration to others’ feelings. However, when concretely practiced, things can get complex, with indirect messages and veiled intentions.

A practical conversation can turn into a riddle and before you know it, you’re entangled in the dance of Thai culture. If you miss the beat, you might step on someone’s foot, causing hurt and disgrace without intending to.

To help you navigate through Thailand’s national culture, here are some scenarios that will help you understand more what greng jai means and how it is applied in daily life.

Reluctance to Receive Help

Because of the desire not to hurt others’ feelings or cause anyone trouble, greng jai often translates to the reluctance to receive help from others as in the situation above.

Even if they are obviously in need and they see you as highly capable and free to help them, Thais will never ask you for help. They think that doing so will cause you inconvenience and add a burden to your life.

And even if you offer help yourself, they will immediately reject it. Accepting help right away will make them seem too dependent or taking advantage of you and that would make them lose face.

They would initially reject your help but if you offer it two or three times more, they might give in, especially when they know they really need it in the first place.

Thai monks walking
เกรงใจ in English can be translated to consideration but its meaning encompasses more than that.

Tolerance Among Thai People

Part of greng jai is a preference for tolerance. This is to keep things cool and hide emotions in public.

For example, when someone is not following public regulations in a Western country, it is normal and even proper to get reprimanded.

However, in Thai culture, tolerating the act is often seen as more favorable because it avoids confrontation.

Public confrontation is one of the most undesirable situations for a Thai. Bursting into emotions and flaring up with arguments shows a lack of character and upbringing.

People are expected to keep their cool as a sign of being able to handle situations well. In some cases, this means to the point of tolerating ill manners.

Respect to Seniority

As a culture where seniority plays an important part in social norms, greng jai also finds its way into the hierarchical dynamics. Juniors are expected to show respect to their seniors and not to cause them any disgrace.

In school, for example, a student may not want to ask difficult questions to their teachers to avoid offending them. In the media, journalists try to avoid raising embarrassing concerns to government authorities for fear of bringing doubts about their integrity. Between children and their parents, the same sense of deference is expected.

Aside from simply showing respect, juniors do this to prevent negativity and aggressiveness by imposing themselves. Moreover, doing the contrary would risk them losing the good side of people in power.

Important Part of Saving Face

The concept of saving and losing face is big in Thai culture. Appearances are everything and if you cause another person, especially a senior to “lose face,” that would be the height of dishonor to them and to yourself.

Practicing greng jai is a way to “save face” in unpleasant or scandalous situations. This can mean refraining from making a criticism or outright ignoring a disturbing gesture.

Thai mother with children
Thai culture is sensitive to seniority, teaching children greng jai by giving deference to parents and elders.

The Disadvantage of Greng Jai in Thai Culture

Greng jai is one of the most admirable Thai traits and is inculcated in Thai people since their childhood. It is essentially practiced to cultivate good relations and maintain harmony and peace in the family and in the community.

However, the extreme side of greng jai can cause complications and disadvantages. Because of being non-confrontational, it may not be easy to understand what is truly in the heart and mind of a Thai. A simple yes or no may actually be a code that still needs to be deciphered.

For example, if you invite a Thai to play some sports but they are not available to do so, it is highly probable that they would still answer you positively out of greng jai.

Because they don’t want to hurt your feelings, they respond with something that they think would please you.

However, that may leave you confused and still hurt when you find out they actually don’t show up to your appointment.

Aside from personal misunderstandings, it can engender unfairness and dishonesty. Though everyone wants peace and camaraderie, extreme greng jai runs the risk of being superficial instead of substantial.

To foreigners visiting Thailand, greng jai would seem illogical and can cause culture shock. As greng jai in English is not easy to define, it can also take time to digest and adjust to when you’re new to Thai culture.

Understanding that Thais have a different set of values often unfamiliar to Westerners would help one to appreciate it and navigate through this side of Thai living.

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