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Krengjai

Ratchada Chitrada
6 October 2004

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Krengjai is a Thai verb that foreigners find especially difficult to understand. It combines two distinct words: kreng (to fear something or be afraid to act) and jai (of the heart or mind). Its nearest English equivalent might be: to have consideration for another person’s feeling, to be reluctant to disturb or offend, or to be fearful of approaching someone. But its layers of meaning in the Thai language go deeper.

I took part in a cross-cultural class a few years ago – designed for foreigners who work in Thailand, and for Thais who work with them – where krengjai was the very first concept to be taught. Many foreign colleagues there said that they don’t understand Thai people, whose reserve about expressing what they think contrasted with the foreigners’ greater straightforwardness. A large part of the difference is in krengjai.

One Canadian friend, who has lived in Thailand for over a decade, told me that when a Thai person first explained krengjai to him, he couldn’t grasp its meaning until given many examples of its use. So here are three.

First, in the workplace Thais rarely ask for a salary raise. They may not be happy with their annual raise but they will never say this out loud; they feel krengjai towards their bosses.

Second, on a crowded train in the heart of Bangkok, two friends are traveling. A group of foreign tourists enters, speaking to each other in loud voices. Jamlong wonders why they are speaking so loudly, and Kirksit speculates: “I think they do not krengjai other people on the train”. Jamlong agrees; krengjai is not part of their make-up.

Third, in a taxi on my way home in Bangkok recently, I am tempted to tell the driver which way to go. After all, every taxi-driver cannot be expected to know every route in the city. At one time I might have done so; but now, I am concerned that the driver would feel that I think he doesn’t know the way. I feel krengjai and remain silent.

So krengjai is a daily element of Thais’ social interaction, a self-conscious way of behaving and thinking. It draws on the Buddhist beliefs of the majority of the Thai people (of whom around 95% are Buddhists). In particular, krengjai reflects the idea of karma that guides one’s actions towards others in the expectation that one will receive the same thing in return.

At the same time, the degree to which krengjai is observed in Thailand depends also on a person’s background, education, and seniority. This can be expressed by the use of two additional words, puyai (an elder or someone more important than oneself) and punoi (a younger or less important person). Punoi are obliged to krengjai puyai. For example, students do not question a teacher’s ability because that would be a disrespectful way to treat their puyai; and Thai reporters rarely ask government officials tough questions, because they are afraid of losing their favour. Because Thais usually treat government officials as puyai, many sensitive issues are not discussed among Thais.

In primary school, our teacher taught us a song that included the lines (Thais add kwam at the front of a verb to turn it into a noun):

“Kwamkrengjai is a treasure of noblemen, if you take into consideration that everybody has heart; once you are born a human being, if you don’t krengjai others, you have no morality in your mind.”

According to the song, kwamkrengjai has a universal quality. But experience suggests it finds particular expression in Thai.

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