By Al Lim, Yale-NUS College ’19 – See bio
I love allusions. Now that I’ve grabbed your attention, we are about to embark on a cultural journey through Thailand. Thailand has of late been featured in newspapers quite frequently, mostly due to its political turmoil. Today, I am not proposing to involve myself in a witty, political banter for I haven’t the ammunition for riposte. What I am proposing though, to elaborate on a fundamental aspect of the Thai culture that is constantly overlooked and misunderstood.
The Land of Smiles leaves tourists a lasting impression: perhaps of the metropolitan shopping spree that Bangkok provides or rejuvenation from resorts in Krabi or Koh Samui. At the end of the day, some wonder, why the “Land of Smiles?”
The Thai language itself is derived from Sanskrit which is the precursor to Hindi or Tamil. The spread of Buddhism can be tied to this where demographically, 94.6% of the 67 million Thais are Buddhist (CIA World Factbook). (If you happen to be on Jeopardy or attend a Trivia Night, they are mostly of the Theraveda School). However, my point is not to trace the origins of the language, but to emphasize the concept of respect and being polite in the culture. It is an integral facet of being Thai to show your elders their due respect and in saying this I shall introduce the term “greng jai” (เกรงใจ).
There is no Western equivalent to this. It is inherently Thai. Many Internet sites would tell you that this is on the level of being unobtrusive or deferential to others. This would not sufficiently shed light on this concept. For Thais, they would rather verge on being passive-aggressive than have a confrontation. This can be attributed to the dominance of Buddhism in Thailand that has become such a fundamental aspect of the culture. Simply put, it is a ubiquitous concept that devolves on not causing discomfort to anyone around you.
Hypothetical situations might help explain this. I mean, some of it is common courtesy, but “greng jai” goes beyond that. For example, if you are rooming with someone, you wouldn’t blast metal music all day, everyday really loudly. That would be rude. If you did not like something someone said, you would rather hope that they do not do it in the future instead of confronting them and making them feel bad about it. Through culture and time, “greng jai” is thus inculcated.
Some foreigners that do not understand “greng jai” and whose marriages are ruined as a result of miscommunication like to categorically term Thais as deceitful or dishonest. This is a false assumption based on selective bias and ignorance. Yes, I do go so far as saying ignorance and this is a perfect example of ethnocentrism whose application transcends Thailand, today. For centuries, Westerners have considered their culture superior and use their own yardstick. I don’t need to scramble for examples. Just look at the Opium Wars, Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” or the manifestations of Social Darwinism. Western superiority is often equated with Roman ideology, Greek philosophy and the emergence of Christianity. In this vein, the stress has been geared towards democratic values and at its core would be integrity and justice.
This is not an indictment of Western values, but rather, juxtaposition with Thai values in particular. Thai society is such that the population prioritizes “face” in front of integrity. Rather than an assertion to right a wrong, one should tolerate friction to look good in front of other citizens. It is a whole different lens that many find hard to focus and hone in on because the differences in culture. And exactly that, it is not better or worse, it is different. Okay, this is not a postulation by Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius or Descartes which has its own merit, but it is a cultural phenomenon often interpreted wrongly.
From a macro perspective, Thailand has developed into a hub of Buddhism and as such there is a clear preference for respect rather than self-appraisal. Meritocracy is a great idea, but who you know is arguably more important than what you know. This practice is commonplace in Thailand at every level. Society is stratified where the old money are still respected with the nouveau riche being a more emergent part of society. For example, the Techapaibul family is a well-respected name and owned 40% equity of Bangkok Metropolitan Bank at one point. Descendents of these families and from wealthy business owners would comprise the “High So” which is the “in-crowd” of Thailand. Just as the Rockefeller or Vanderbilt families are renowned, so are some of the families in Thailand. It is not that the nouveau riche are not regarded because they are; it is more of the respect that the High So garners is still a
Thais are bound by their culture, religion and ultimately reverence for the King. Self-delusion is regarded as rude, whereas detachment or nonchalance for the sake of preserving face is highly praised. The famous Thai “Wai” (ไหว้) consists of a person bowing slightly with their hands folded together. This gesture is different depending on audience, where the higher ones hands are, the higher the regard. Thai society is like that. Despite being bound together by a relatively common religion and culture of respect, the society is still stratified nigh on castes. Underlining this culture though, is “greng jai” and it is definitely helpful for many people to understand the concept, to understand the land, to understand the people.
Bonus: check out this super popular Thai music video!