Greng Jai

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“I was locking the door to my apartment today and someone walked by me, and I apologized. Where do Canadians learn this from?”

– Actual Facebook quote from a Canadian

As far as I can tell, the Canadian penchant for unnecessary apology relates to the need to be included in the “group” or society during the cold, pre-furnace, early days of European migration; if you were a selfish asshole you may very well be left to freeze to death. Better to not rock the boat and apologize a little to ensure that most people were happiest most of the time, eh bud?


In Thailand there is a very similar concept – greng jai. There are over 60 million people living in Thailand and they do so with a remarkable amount of harmony. Many attribute this to the concept of greng jai.

Example of Thai social situation:

I needed the sensor on my camera cleaned and, as it was filthy, I decided to take it to a local shop my friend had suggested to me. I had no idea what amount of work was involved in cleaning the sensor on a mirror-less camera but it was worth something to me to be able to close the aperture without looking at a polka dot sky.

It was an older gentleman who owned the shop and he did the job quickly. I was thinking I might have to leave it with him but it took less than five minutes.

I asked him how much I owed him for doing me this quick but much appreciated service. It’s a big deal if your sensor is dirty, regardless of how long it takes to fix it.

Est le fun commence….

He shakes his head. Nothing.

I smile and offer him 100 THB.

No, no shaking his head, smiling.

I continue smiling. Please. Take it.

Smiling. No.

Smiling. Take it. Please. For the love of God take my money. Don’t do this to me man.

His wife laughs at the social sword dance playing out in the shop.

In the end my attempt to greng jai him fails. I put the money in my pocket, wai him as he is older than I am and thank him very much (kob khun ma krub) for his generosity. I feel sia nam jai (tears from the heart) – a loss of face at potentially having disturbed him.

Perhaps this is by design or it’s just good marketing savvy but I think he knows that the next time I need my camera fixed I will go back to his shop, not for a freebie but to give him business to regain some of the face lost in being put in his debt due to his generosity.

He wins long term. I win short term. Everybody’s happy.

However, while greng jai is a useful way to keep accord in society – and it works pretty well – a Thai friend of mine related some of the more awkward situations the desire to not disturb others can create:

“When it comes to work, some Thai people will not give you useful comments (since it might hurt your feelings) because they are afraid that you will hate them (since you are so nice to them). Some people consider this as greng jai as well, as in, ‘I want to tell him the truth, but I greng jai’.”

“I want to tell the parents that their children behave badly, but I greng jai. They are suffering enough.”

‘I don’t want to tell the police about what actually happened because he (the culprit) was so nice to us. I greng jai him.”

“Greng jai also has an effect on research. You know, some researchers refuse to use a 5-point scale rating on a Likert scale when doing surveys on Thai people. Some of them might feel greng jai and evaluate “3” on everything.”

So there you have it – the next time you inadvertently, involuntarily and temporarily occupy someone else’s personal space and feel compelled to apologize for potentially sharing their oxygen for a microsecond, you greng jai them – Canuck style.

Your noble desire to not even potentially, accidentally disturb your neighbour may look quite insane to the uninitiated but rest assured, you have a good heart (khun jai dee). In Thailand you will be understood Canuck.

You’ll do well here.

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