The facets of a collectivist society manifest in many different ways, such as through behavior in the classroom, the culture around eating and living arrangements. But, at least here in Thailand, that collectivism extends beyond observable actions into personal attitudes and it influences interpersonal relationships. This is something that from my chats with other Peace Corps Volunteers is the number one most confiding, confusing and difficult to understand differences between the collectivist culture here and the individualist American culture.
The concept in Thai is called greng jai. There really is no way to translate this into English. It’s more than just courtesy. It’s not appeasement. It goes further than just not rocking the boat. But it certainly is all of those things rolled into one. I’ll provide a couple of examples that I understand to embody greng jai.
Mae is having a dinner party and invites Bomb. Bomb asks if there will be a lot of people there. Mae says that she’s invited a handful of people. Bomb says OK, she’ll be there. Mae tells her that she’ll see her on Saturday at 6. Saturday rolls around and Bomb doesn’t show up for Mae’s dinner. She did not call to cancel or cancel ahead of time. Mae sees Bomb on Monday and asks her why she didn’t come. Bomb says that she had diarrhea.
What happened here, beneath the surface is that when Bomb asked if there were going to be a lot of people there, she wanted to make sure that there weren’t going to be so many people that Mae wouldn’t be able to pay attention to everyone. Bomb did not call to tell Mae that she wouldn’t be coming because it would have offended Mae, even if Mae is making extra food for Bomb. So Bomb decided not to go. When Mae asks Bomb about her absence, Bomb supplies a socially acceptable answer that no one really believes but treats as the truth, that she had diarrhea. (And yes, Thai people really do give tong sia which translates as diarrhea as an excuse in normal conversation.) From a Western perspective, what Bomb did was pretty rude. Mae was expecting her to be there and may have been waiting for her and been worried when she didn’t show. But here, it is better to not say anything lest you offend someone or disrupt the status quo.
Save doesn’t have a vehicle and wants to go to the store after work. Bang is younger than Save and will often give him a ride somewhere if he needs one, so Save asks Bang for a ride. On this day though, Bang needs to go home to help take care of his kids. Rather than turning down Save, Bang agrees to take him to the store and is late getting home to help out at home.
This is a situation where the age hierarchy comes into play. Well-mannered Thai people are expected to respect and defer to their elders. People who are older than you, from what I have seen most often, are the only people that deserve respect. There is no requirement for people to show respect to people who are younger than them. So rather than turning Save down, because of previous obligations, Bang takes him to the store, perhaps at the expense of harmony at home. From a Western perspective, Save would be “too bad, so sad,” here. But Bang really wanted to show the courtesy and respect to Save and so gave him a ride because of greng jai.
Tew collects phalluses and hangs them from his ice cream cart because it is believed that they will bring him lots of good business. Dome knows this about Tew and tells him that he saw a one meter phallus at another market and offers to get it for him. Tew says that would be nice. Dome goes and buys the phallus, gives it to Tew and expects to be repaid for it. Tew actually didn’t really want that large of a phallus because there was no space for it on his cart, but he gives Dome the money and is especially grateful for the phallus.
Again, Tew did not want to hurt Dome’s feelings and so paid him the money rather than argue about it. I know that in the States, such a transaction never would have happened without an explicit agreement of what was happening. There is a lot of things that happen just beneath the surface here that someone keeps everything running and sometimes keeps in running in a direction that it never should have gone. Tew probably would have been internally conflicted about the transaction, but would never say anything about it to anyone because it would rock the boat and challenge the social harmony.
This collective effort at keeping everything in a balance is something that I interpret as an aspect of the collectivist society. It is something that I am not very good at doing and is a challenge and struggle for me to understand when it happens to me, as I know it is for others. My examples are pretty mild, but greng jai extends into very extreme situations where no one will take action, such as abusive parents, witnessing/knowing about sexual abuse or harassment and corruption. However, it at least keeps drama to somewhat of a minimum.