Greng Jai (Being Considerate)
Greng Jai is loosely translated as meaning “considerate” but it is a far more complex state of collective consciousness than one word alone could ever define. In some ways it is an extension of the losing face phenomenon because greng jai Thais will go out of their way not to upset, annoy, offend or anger anyone. In fact they will go to extreme lengths to avoid any form of confrontation or potentially unpleasant situations.
Again, this can cause consternation, frustration and even anger amongst farangs who fail to grasp the profound and intricate delicacies of Thai culture. We adapt and blend in with all the subtlety and grace of an elephant skateboarding in a china shop. I have carelessly trodden on toes and placed my foot in my mouth more times than I care to recall, not because I am insensitive or dogmatic, but simply because our cultures are so different.
I still can’t fully agree with the philosophy of being greng jai, even if it is, superficially at least, well-intentioned. For example, if I see a friend and his flies are open, I should tell him to save him from embarrassing himself further. However, being greng jai means that I will not say anything to him because he would feel silly in front of me that he had made such a mistake. Imagine a situation where your best friend is going for a job interview and when you chat beforehand, you spot basil stuck in her teeth. Would you tell her? If you are greng jai, you wouldn’t because of the momentary embarrassment that this would cause, but surely it would be more embarrassing for the friend to find out after the interview.
If you say something, you are not greng jai and you cause the friend to lose face. If you don’t say anything, you are greng jai and the friend saves face, although you are surely avoiding your responsibility as a friend and only postponing the inevitable. What will go through your friend’s mind when someone else tells her, or she spots the offending basil in a bathroom mirror and then recounts all the incidents and conversations she has had since that fated meal?
So, bearing in mind that we are not going to change the very deeply ingrained psyche of 60 million people, what is the key to our easy assimilation of the greng jai philosophy? There isn’t one. I am tempted to say that we should be greng jai with Thai friends and more direct with farang friends, but I don’t believe it’s that simple. Let’s just accept that it is well-intentioned if somewhat, to farang minds, misplaced. Oh, and don’t forget to check your teeth after you eat basil.