Kreng jai (also written as krengjai) is a distinctly Thai trait that can bewilder visitors to Thailand. So what is kreng jai? The direct translation is often given as ‘awe heart’ or ‘deferential heart‘ and it is usually interpreted as consideration, but that is too simplistic because kreng jai is also a feeling. Kreng jai is being aware of other people’s feelings and showing politeness, respect and consideration towards them. It is also tied in with the Thai concept of not wanting to lose face; displaying kreng jai is one way in which one person can help another save face. It’s something that can’t be summed up in one word and as with may aspects of Thai life, there are social rules and standards that determine how and when kreng jai is displayed.
From a young age, Thai children are encouraged to kreng jai. By being considerate to their parents and elders and acting in a way that pleases them, the Thai child is showing kreng jai. Beyond the family unit, the Thai child is also encouraged to kreng jai other elders and people in positions of responsibility such as teachers, policemen and so on. Kreng jai remains a strong influence into adult life and along with jai yen, it is a trait much admired. Naturally, there are exceptions to every rule, but on the surface at least, most Thai people will kreng jai those who deserve it.
This is all well and good, but how does the whole business of kreng jai affect the average tourist visiting Thailand?
The most obvious one that I’ve noticed is that Thai people will often automatically kreng jai older visitors. If you are in your senior years and visiting Thailand, don’t be surprised to find that Thai people are particularly concerned about your welfare. In Thai society, the elderly are treated in high regard and this extends to foreign tourists too.
The concept of kreng jai can also be frustrating for many tourists because it doesn’t encourage Thai people to express exactly what they think. Instead, they may give you the answer that they think you want to hear or when you ask a question, you may get the enigmatic response, “up to you”. This can be incredibly frustrating and no matter how long I live here, it is something which my Western mindset can find difficult to reconcile. And it isn’t just me, because Thai friends say it sometimes frustrates them too! The key is to try not to show your frustration; jai yen yen na.