Heart Values in Thailand
by Kasma Loha-unchit
See also:The Story of Dancing Shrimp.
Of the many heart values important in Thai culture, there are three that are difficult to explain, for there are no close English equivalents. The first is nahm-jai, "water that flows from the heart." This refers to the genuine, unconditional generosity that come straight from the heart, without agenda, without ulterior motivation for gain or expectation of return. Through my years of travel, I have been deeply moved by the warmth and overwhelming continual flow of nahm-jai from rural folk.
The second heart value of great importance in Thai society is gkrehng-jai. Gkrehng can be translated as "to be in awe of" or "to fear." This "fear" is not so much the feeling of being afraid of someone as it is a quality of reverence, respect and high regard and an implication of social boundaries. When you gkrehng-jai, you have consideration for someone, and this is shown in considerate behavior toward that person. You may, for instance, be reluctant to impose on someone by asking for a favor, or you may refrain from doing something that you feel may overextend your boundary or cause someone embarrassment or to "lose face." This person for whom you have high regard may in turn reciprocate with considerate behavior toward you. Gkrehng-jai is a very important value in maintaining harmonious social relationships and one that has a protective quality among the people involved. It accounts for the high degree of politeness and civility you see in exchanges among Thai people everywhere.
A third heart value is that of maintaining a "cool heart" (jai-yen) as opposed to a "hot heart" (jai-rawn). A person who is jai-yen is patient, forgiving, accepting of the circumstances that life brings, easy-going and can stay calm and collected even in the face of provocation or distress. A hot-hearted person, on the other hand, is impatient, hot-tempered, easily provoked and prone to emotional upsets over seemingly small matters. Having a cool heart is often regarded as a sign of emotional maturity. In a culture that places great importance on social harmony, relationships and feelings, cultivating jai-yen is highly valued. In modern ways of conducting business, however, a person who has a hot heart is gaining favor because he or she has the temperament to demand quick responses from others and to get things done faster. A person with too cool a heart may be too lazy for such high-stress jobs.
Possessing jai-yen goes hand in hand with the easy-going attitude of mai bpen rai, which universally permeates the Thai culture. Mai pen rai means "it doesn't matter," "it's all right," "it's fine and okay," "never mind," and so on, reflecting a penchant to go with the flow of things and not to hold on to expectations and disappointments. Thai people brush aside things that don't turn out well with a "mai bpen rai," saying it with a smile and moving on to something else that may provide just as much satisfaction. If there is little one can do to change things, saying "mai bpen rai" may be preferable to pursuing the matter, especially if the change may impose on someone else's feelings. If you visit Thailand, be sure to practice a mai bpen rai attitude along with a big smile, and you will endear yourself to the gentle and easy-going people. Give your linear, analytical mind a vacation and experience this "Land of Smiles" with your heart. Keep your heart cool, too; the weather and food are hot enough so that you won't need any extra heat to spoil your days there.