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Understanding “Kreng Jai” – Learning Thai culture

Thai culture and  เกรงใจ – kreng jai

If you live in Thailand for long enough and are trying to speak a bit of Thai you will most certainly come across the phrase of “Kreng Jai” which literally translated would mean “awe of heart”. A better translation however would be ‘consideration’. This ‘kreng jai” quite often leads to quite some confusion for foreign expatriates here in Thailand though. While the concept of Kreng Jai is quite important in Thai culture the confusion among foreigners even leads to lots of frustration. Therefore it is important to understand what Kreng Jai means and how it influences everyday life in the Land of Smile.

When trying to explain Kreng Jai it is best described as a kind of desire that prevents you from disrupting the happiness of others.

[Tweet “Kreng Jai: The desire not to disrupt the happiness of others”]

This goes further than one might think though. Kreng Jai is also thought to be given and obeyed to even if it is at the expense of efficiency, honesty or even your own interests. When you ask friends or read books like the lonely planet you will quite likely hear or read something like ‘Thai people are very warm and caring’ – that is part of Kreng Jai.

Generally speaking Kreng Jai often is rooted in a feeling of uncertainty and the desire not to offend other people. Therefore you might not encounter Kreng Jai among close friends or couples. When you are a foreigner though who tries to build up new relationships here in Thailand Kreng Jai becomes quite important.

In the beginning I mentioned that Kreng Jai often leads to confusion or frustration among foreigners. Let’s look at some examples when that could occur:

  • A coworker doesn’t correct an error of you during a meeting or in front of others because he does not want to embarrass you – he is feeling Kreng Jai.
  • If your Thai girlfriend does not want to return a dish that does not fit expectations in a nice restaurant – she feels Kreng Jai.
  • If someone tells you that your request will be fullfilled in a certain timeframe even if it seems to be impossible (and then turns out to be impossible) – that person feels Kreng Jai.
  • If you are walking around Bangkok and asking for directions and someone sends you, totally confident, into the wrong direction – that person feels Kreng Jai.

Kreng Jai however does not always come in those colors. Foreigners can also cause offense by handling Kreng Jai the wrong way. Let’s say an older foreigner behaves badly towards a younger Thai girl she might feel Kreng Jai for him and won’t correct him so he will continue his bad behavior.

Or, what happened to me when I first moved to Thailand, a Thai coworker might be really offended if you criticize his work straight forward (even if you use polite wording).

Since Thais show Kreng Jai, they expect the same from you. For us foreigners it is sometimes a one-way road. We accept the Thai Kreng Jai towards us but don’t show Kreng Jai back (since we are not used to it).

As you can see understanding Kreng Jai is not easy and handling it the right way simply needs a lot of understanding and experience. Therefore there are only a few things that one could work on:

When you are frustrated with the ineffectiveness that comes along with Kreng Jai that is being shown towards you you can try to do it like Thais and say ‘Mai pen rai’ (“no problem, no worries” – and yes, I’m serious). Kreng Jai has been around Thailand forever and neither you nor any other foreigner that comes here will just change that.

Try not to use the Kreng Jai feeling of Thais towards you for your own good. Copy how Thai coworkers and friends act and interact with you and try to show them the same amount of Kreng Jai.

In its essence Kreng Jai is a give and take. Back and forth. It’s about showing and receiving consideration and good manners.

[Tweet “Who gives Kreng Jai shall receive Kreng Jai. “]

Sascha Funk

Founder / Editor at My-Thai.org
Sascha is the publisher of my-thai.org and switched from an online marketing agency life in Europe to a teaching and education life in Thailand. He also writes about Teaching & Technology.

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  • Nell Srisakul

    I think sometimes Kreng Jai can be a two-edged sword though. Even though I am Thai but as I used to study in NZ sometimes I feel like when doing group work here in Thailand it is quite hard for me to point out the problem or say what I want to say right away. I have to be Kreng Jai and think again and again whether I should do this or that or not so that I won’t offend anyone. To be honest it’s a bit frustrating! But we just have to adapt to it and make it works in our way!

  • Tell me about it. When I came to Thailand I suffered a lot with whole Kreng Jai thing. Being from Germany I’m always straight forward and didn’t really understand why lots of Thai people would just not say anything to me. So it’s important to understand that ‘kreng jai’ is present here in Thailand in order to not get frustrated or angry. Even though I know what it is and I know when people are being kreng jai, I still really don’t like it. Especially people who know me shouldn’t feel the need to be kreng jai and rather be honest. But that’s culture and we can’t change it.

  • Jean Pattanapichai

    Kreng Jai is actually one of the problems in Thailand. It is a system of giving and takes like you said. It is also the base of corruption. My dad works for Thai- government and Kreng Jai plays an important role in his job.

  • It certainly is a very difficult “thing” to handle when it comes to work relations.

  • Time Chittarapasa

    I hate the word Kreng Jai. It sometimes feels like you have to lie for maintaining your good relationship. Moreover, I look at this is a small part of corruptions. It may leads to corruption,who know? small parts can be a major part.

  • Everybody seems to dislike it to some extend, yet it’s still ever present. Will it ever change?

  • Atiwat Radsameekobkul

    Kreng jai is seem to be a good words but it is also can ruin your friend’s or others people relationship,intention,kindness. I think Thai people should think carefully before using/saying “kreng jai” because it might cause many problem

  • Karnchana Hongsirikun

    Kreng Jai is not real. They just say it in order to look kind and mature. For example, I might say I Kreng jai you but in reality I just said it for you to reply back “It is OK I’ll do it” or whatever. So they get offended when you just go straigtforward.

  • Everybody seems to know that and everybody complains about it, yet it still sticks around. Interesting.

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  • Jenny Philomena

    This blog was very well written and I will now finally be able to explain the word “kreng jai” to my father who has lived in Thailand for over 9 years and still has not been able to understand the concept of it. I, myself, have felt confused and frustrated when I first moved to Thailand and encountered the word “kreng jai,” even though I speak fluent Thai. It is to be highly respected and kept in the back of your head at all times when you are in Thailand. Thai people often times misunderstand and get offended by foreigners who do not show “kreng jai” and it is therefore very important for foreigners to understand the phrase “kreng jai.” This blog was very helpful and I agree with all of the content written above. On top of that, the quotes in this blog are also very beautifully written and I might use one of them as a caption to my Instagram pictures. Thank you :)

  • Thanks for your comment. Kreng Jai frustrated me a lot – still does to be honest. Now that I understand where it comes from I mostly can figure out when people are being kreng jai and hence can, hopefully, react appropriately. During my first few years here it was really tough though especially coming from a German background where we, as you know, most of the time just straight out say what we think or want. Once in a while I teach cross-cultural classes and lots of foreigners have difficulties in grasping the idea of kreng jai. So your father is not alone ;-)

    If you end up using a quote, don’t forget to tag @mythaiorg or #mythaiorg and we’ll repost it ;-)

  • Um Ntrch

    This is a really good article because as an exchange student in the United States two years ago, I was always ‘Kreng Jai’ of others and I wish I could explain to them what my action and feeling were and this article is exactly what I wanted them to read! Sometimes if foreigners don’t perceive ‘Kreng Jai’ the right way, they could totally get you wrong. For instant, when I went to my host mom’s friend’s house and she wanted to give me something, I would feel so ‘Kreng Jai’ and sometimes not say yes to that and maybe she could think that I was disrespectful when I really just so ‘Kreng Jai’ and couldn’t take that. I mean there should be the new English vocabulary word that has the meaning exactly to this Thai world so that I can just say it and not get the foreigner feel confusing again.

  • Booker Vannapruk

    I strongly believe that ” Kreng jai” is not always real sometimes you just say kreng jai because you may want to keep good relationship with people who you talk to ; therefore, we have to understand that in Thai culture people are sensitive about the feeling and respect. To sum up, I think kreng jai sometimes it is good in some situation for example someone say he/she can pick you up from pretty far away in this case it is fine to say kreng jai. However, in your work sometimes you should not say kreng jai because it hide what you really feel so you should be honest and don’t say kreng jai in situation like this. This blog give me some more idea about this word thanks!!!

  • Good points. Completely agree that it depends on the situation.

  • True, it’s really difficult to explain it in English. That’s probably also why so many foreigners don’t understand it.

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