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 a buffalo 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.
It is, in essence, a case of employing extreme tact especially in the business world where a personal relationship with colleagues is just as, if not more, important as a professional one to Thais. It is, therefore, vital that you keep working relationships harmonious if you want to build a successful team. Sometimes this just means understanding; sometimes it means being flexible; and at other times it means biting your lip.
If a Thai member of your team came to work late or showed a lack of motivation, it would serve no useful purpose to display anger with them. This would be equivalent to building an insurmountable wall between you. The situation would be lost and future interaction would be irreparably harmed.
Of course, you don’t want them to believe that it is acceptable for them to under-perform or let the team down, so what is the solution here? A calm private chat with a controlled temper should be the first course of action. If there is no subsequent improvement, then it’s best to consult your HR Department for advice or follow the company disciplinary procedure. Once the staff member knows that you are aware of the situation and not prepared to accept it, any repeated abuse by them means it is no longer a cultural matter.
Equally, you shouldn’t cause a colleague to lose face by highlighting a weakness or mistake. While I understand that it is considerate not to do so, I don’t agree that it is necessarily the best policy. If a colleague clearly doesn’t know how to complete one of their responsibilities but you do, wouldn’t it be better to offer them some advice and support? Apparently not.
If that person is older or more senior than you, offering to show them how to do something would break the greng jai code and cause them to lose face. As a language school manager, I came across situations where a Thai student was uncomfortable with the farang teacher we had assigned simply because the student was older than the teacher.
Company politics is another point to consider. I have seen many instances where a small or medium-sized company with a limited budget had made a false economical saving by enrolling a group of students that included a mixture of hierarchical and proficiency levels. If a superior was unable to answer a question, none of the subordinates would answer, either. Even if they knew the answer, they would remain silently greng jai to save their manager’s face by not out-smarting him.
What's more, don’t expect Thai colleagues to point out if you made a mistake, whether this be at work or with attempts at the Thai language. There have been occasions when I have tried to explain something in Thai to a Thai colleague but I knew I was struggling to say what I wanted. The Thai colleague just nodded politely through my garbled ramblings until I asked them to explain back what I had said, at which point they calmly smiled and said that they hadn’t understood me. If I hadn’t checked, they wouldn’t have said anything.
To my farang mind, being greng jai is a well-intentioned but sometimes counter-productive cultural lore. As a result, I resist its total assimilation, hoping to temper it with liberal sprinklings of common sense. I am all for being respectful and considerate, but not at the expense of being logical and rational.
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02 Apr 2013, 05:10
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