Although I have studied in the United States for almost two years, there is one Thai word for which I cannot find a counterpart in English: kreng-jai.
To kreng-jai is to be considerate of how other people feel and act considerately so that one does not engender any ill feeling in others. Similar to externality in economics, kreng-jai is grounded in the idea that every person’s action also affects people around them, whether one is cognizant of this fact or not. Therefore, everyone should bear this fact in mind and treat others with utmost respect.
My most recent experience of kreng-jai happened during the spring break when I visited my best friend from Thailand in Minnesota. As my break started earlier than his, he invited me to stay in his dorm until he had finished his final exams. We planned to travel around the Midwest together afterwards. Noticing I was anxious that my presence would disrupt his daily routine, he told me on the first day I arrived to make myself at home. Nevertheless, regardless of how close I was to him, I tried to be mindful of my actions. In this scenario, because I kreng-jai and treated him with respect, no major feud between him and me happened.
The concept of kreng-jai can be applied to more than just friends as well. It could serve as a framework for any group of people, be it between an employer and an employee, a professor and a student, or even two strangers. During my high school years, I had a classmate who never skipped his math class despite understanding every mathematical concept his teacher planned to cover. Let’s call him A.J. He was concerned the teacher might interpret his absence as an indicator that her lesson was not sufficiently engaging. To maximize what he gained from the class, A.J. explained his situation to my math teacher and eventually became a peer mentor, which is similar to a teaching assistant at Swarthmore. More kreng-jai equates to less egocentrism. By being conscious of the consequence of one’s actions, people who practice kreng-jai can enjoy more meaningful relationships.
At this point, some may wonder whether kreng-jai has any real-life applications in a fast-paced society like ours. Others may doubt if kreng-jai works on any larger scale beyond the interactions between groups of people. The answer to both questions is yes. Take Thailand as an example. In the past, Thailand was suffering from the shortage of doctors, especially in rural areas. Since the Baby Boomer generation, an increase in the Thai population has significantly outpaced the rate at which doctors graduate from medical schools. To exacerbate the issue, the country has been afflicted with severe income inequality: as years pass, urban areas are becoming wealthier whereas rural areas are gradually impoverished. As a result, Thai doctors prefer to work in urban areas.
How does kreng-jai play a role in alleviating this problem? It was incorporated in one of the Ministry of Health’s campaign to promote health awareness. The message is simple: before visiting a doctor, every person should take care of their health by eating healthy food, sleeping sufficiently, and exercising regularly. Moreover, before every visit to any hospital, patients should mindfully consider whether their condition truly prompts them to visit doctors. For instance, if a patient catches a cold, they should try resting first. Should the symptoms remain, they can visit doctors afterwards. Thanks to the campaign, the doctor shortage is less severe as people whose condition is not urgent kreng-jai and believe doctors should treat the urgent cases first. Even though the reduction in the number of patients may be attributed to other factors as well, every society still benefits if its members recognize that other people have their needs as well. Kreng-jai, I would argue, is one of the unique traits pervasive among Thai people.
How about Swarthmore? How can the Swarthmore community incorporate kreng-jai into its daily practice? One example is how roommates in the same dorm treat one another. In the beginning of last semester, each dorm requested its residents to sign a roommate contract so that everyone understood how to treat their shared space, such as whether the room is a place to rest or to socialize or how to allocate the chores. The contract also serves as a reference whenever a conflict between roommates arises.
Necessary though it was, a roommate contract should not serve as the only framework for how roommates treat one another. Like laws, no contract can take every possible interaction into account. Some unexpected events that fall into grey areas will inevitably happen. For example, when I signed my roommate contract, I did not anticipate that I needed to practice pronunciation for my language class so often. Therefore, my roommate and I made no strict rule about how much noise each person can produce. Feeling kreng-jai, I tried to practice my pronunciation only when my roommate was absent. Once people are considerate and mindful of others, the less need there is to revisit and change the contract, thus more flexibility.
Practicing kreng-jai can benefit Swarthmore at an institutional level as well. Many Swarthmore students have hectic schedules. It is crucial that we honor other people’s time as well as our own. When I arrived in the US, I usually heard Western people value punctuality: one can earn a disapproving look merely by entering a meeting a few minutes late. Ironically, the Swat Seven — the idea that most Swarthmore meetings start a few minutes later than the scheduled time — is the first aspect of Swarthmore culture I learned. Such excuses as “I have a lot on my plate” are neither reasonable nor appropriate; other people are busy as well. Kreng-jai them and honor their time. This applies to faculty and staff as well. For example, if students are expected to submit homework on time, they should receive professors’ feedback on their homework in a timely fashion as well. As conflicts usually occur when people do not treat others respectfully, they can be resolved or mitigated if people are considerate, or more kreng-jai, of one another.
In essence, to kreng-jai is to be aware that one’s action does not only affect oneself. Applying the concept on both a daily basis and an institutional level can strengthen the bonds within a community. Steering away from egocentrism and adopting kreng-jai helps one develop more meaningful relationships.