Klaeng jai, nam jai: just words?

I had a very interesting discussion once with a Thai friend of mine who had been educated in Europe and who could speak my language fluently. He said there was no word for “klaeng jai” (reluctant to impose upon; deferent to; considerate of another’s feelings; respectful of another’s privacy, space, etc.) in my language, and consequently we were not “klaeng jai” at all. He was right, there are plenty of words that are close, plenty of synonyms or periphrasis, but not a single word that exactly transliterates the concept. Jokingly, I told him we had no word because it was so natural for us, whereas Thai people always used the word as an excuse. For instance in my homecountry you don’t barge in people’s house at night with your whole family without at least warning in advance. But here in Thailand, I sometimes see the in-laws arrive unannounced, with a pick-up full of people and children and grand-mothers and neighbours who don’t bother to introduce themselves (I stopped asking who was who a long time ago), and my wife has to cook for them and we accommodate them for the night. They are the nicest people, they always have gifts for us (“krong fak”, you know, like fruits or plants or whatever) and they’re usually gone before I wake up the next day. And when they arrive, they always apologise to me, saying how much they are “klaeng jai”. With my own way of thinking, because of the culture I was brought in, “klaeng jai” would be to warn us a few days before, tell us how many people are coming and how many nights they plan to stay! But the Thai way of thinking is different: they don’t plan much ahead, and the klaeng chai part is that they have gifts for us, they help with the cooking or other chores and they don’t mind sleeping on the floor. And when we go there, they always receive us warmly and make us feel welcome, so much more than I had ever experienced in my very polite homecountry, where people are not used anymore to spontaneous family gatherings, except for special occasions, usually well planned in advance.

So, my point is, Thay people may be “klaeng jai”, but not in the way you might expect them to be. Now when people get behind the wheel, whatever the country and whatever the culture, people change. There are probably countless sociological studies on the subject, but everyone who has ever driven a car has already experienced it, either personnally or by watching other people: driving is a very potentially confrontational situation. And in a confrontational situation, Thai people usually try their best to ignore each other as long as possible, because once they stop ignoring each other, there is the risk of losing face, and so there is the risk of a bloody fight (road rage here can be lethal). However, Thai people are not aggressive on the road. They may drive aggressively, especially the people who drive for a living (taxi drivers, delivery drivers, minivan drivers…) and there is the occasional madman who thinks a public road is a race track, but generally speaking, they are not in fighting mode. Most of them drive slowly and mind their own driving only. Which is a problem in itself, as you can’t ignore others on the road. Yet that’s what they tend to do, and that’s why you see people driving very slowly on the fast lane on highways, for instance. They don’t care that the two other lanes are free or that they are slowing down the traffic, they don’t care if other cars have to pass them on the left, creating potentially dangerous situations. They just mind themselves and ignore others. Not all of them are like this, of course, but it’s very common, because being considerate to other drivers is not something they strive to achieve. So they may be “klaeng jai” people in their own way, but behind the wheel they don’t have “nam jai” (generosity; kindness; good will; thoughtfulness) at all.

I’m not saying everybody is considerate in my homecountry either, far from that. Some people are in war mode as soon as they sit behind the wheel. But the general idea of a good driver is someone who drives safely, comfortably for the passengers, and who doesn’t make a nuisance of himself. And when you let someone pass in front of you, not because you have to but because you are being courteous, you are supposed to feel good about yourself. But not in Thailand. The use of the headlights is very revealing of this. In Europe, and I guess in most western countries, when you approach an intersection where someone is waiting and you flash your headlights, it means that you allow the other car to go first. So by flashing the headlights, you communicate a message of courteousness. In Thailand, flashing the headlights has the exact opposite meaning, it means “stay where you are, I’m going first”. That is quite significant. And the lack of consideration can be seen in most common situations: they don’t stop to let pedestrians cross the road, they don’t make it easy for you if you want to change lanes or turn into the traffic from an intersection, etc.

Why is that so? As said above, it probably has to do with a general attitude to avoid confrontation (I mind my own business) and not lose face at the same time (I won’t stoop to being courteous), and, more practically, I think it is also due to the fact that most car drivers were and still are motorbike drivers in the first place (when you drive a motorbike, you don’t have to worry much about blocking the traffic or being nice to other people). Finally, some will simply say that Thai people are not considerate to other people, whatever they’re doing. Have you tried to exit a crowded lift? Have you seen the plastic bags everywhere in plain nature? The trash in the backyards? What about the noise pollution, trucks slowly passing by with blaring loudpseakers? Ok, I’ll stop here!

So now, if you have read our article about the “ki kiaet” concept, you have all the pieces of the puzzle to understand the Thai way of driving: they choose the easy way, they enjoy their freedom, they believe in their destiny, and they are not considerate to other drivers. The good thing is that their attitude is not aggressive, so driving here is not as stressful as it can be in Europe, for instance, but is tiring because you have to be very careful all the time.

All the above is my personal analysis, don’t take it as a general truth and I would be verry happy to exchange points of view on this subject.


Is it so bad? Not at all…

1 Comment on “Klaeng jai, nam jai: just words?”

  1. I know your post was several years ago but it is clear to me I could learn a great deal from you about the country, people, and culture I want to adopt. I’ve only been here a few weeks but have already made my share of ignorant blunders. I sincerely wish to avoid as many as possible and would be delighted to buy you dinner, drinks, whatever you want so I can ‘pick your brain’ . No doubt that would not be a good phrase to use here!

    If you are available near Cha-am please let me know. Thanks

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