The Elusive and Enigmatic Concept That Foreigners Just Can’t Wrap Their Heads Around?
In IMPORTANT POINT NUMBER TWO, we looked at how an English speaker from the West should use English and Western culture as reference points (as in the starting point) to have a positive mindset in learning the Thai language. We use the same approach when we want to learn any aspect of Thai culture, especially the ones most useful in improving our Thai language skills.
Check out this article by Alena Hall
Now let’s look at some of the concepts, ideas and notions in that article that may have a corresponding Thai counterpart.
Being considerate of others will take you and your children further in life than any college or professional degree.Marian Wright Edelman
Edelman, a renowned American activist, not only dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of disadvantaged children, but also served as a strong advocate for acting with consideration toward others. Being considerate, one of the roots of pure kindness, comes in many shapes in sizes. And whether you offer compliments solely for the emotional well-being of others or share what you have without expecting anything in return, it is a sense of civility that drives you to act considerately.
Civility really is a more broad term compared to being considerate. Civility is simply just being nice, and it’s not only an attitude of benevolence, thoughtfulness and relating to other individuals. It also entails a real, active interest in the well-being of communities and even concern for the health of the planet. You have to really do an effort in order to be civil. And being considerate is a part of being civil.Abdulla M. Abdulhalim
The takeaway here is that in the West, you have: ‘being considerate of others is considered to be a trait of a civil person’.
In Thailand, we have: ความเกรงใจเป็นสมบัติของผู้ดี.
1. Practising empathy
It’s one thing to harbor a sense of empathy and another to put it into action. Considerate people are not only capable of figuratively putting themselves in other people’s shoes, they also actively CHOOSE to view the world beyond themselves. Their sense of compassion for others drives them to connect, and they derive personal joy and satisfaction from this selfless exchange.
This sounds familiar because it’s one of the cornerstones of ความเกรงใจ.
Knowing what something is (for e.g. ‘empathy’) and being able to do it, are two completely separate things. I think that it is easy to understand the proposition that people from a community-centered society would probably find it easier to practise empathy compared to those from an individual-centered one.
2. Smile often
(C)hoosing to smile makes a significant impact on how others perceive you and your presence, not to mention your own mood. Make the effort to smile for the positive impact it has on others around you.
I think it is also very helpful to practice with yourself. If someone looks at themselves in the mirror and they frown or they smile, it’s a huge difference. You’ll realize how you look differently. People just don’t know how they look when they frown or when they give a nice smile.Abdulla M. Abdulhalim
It’s now easier to understand why Thailand, which places so much emphasis on ความเกรงใจเป็นสมบัติของผู้ดี, is known as ‘The Land of Smiles’. If you find it strange that Thais ‘smile too much’, maybe it’s because the people in your country do NOT smile all that much?
3. Be intuitive of other people’s needs
As you channel your sense of empathy and consider how others around you are feeling, CHOOSE to act on that information. You never know, simply asking someone how they’re doing – regardless of its impact on your life – can do wonders for their mood and self-esteem.
When you get into the elevator and you have 10 seconds to make a good impression or just remain quiet and look at your cell phone, I think if you ask, ‘How is your day?’ just to be nice, that’s being considerate. Let’s face it: Do you really want to know how that person’s day is going? Is it something that would add to or change your life? Especially if that person is a stranger. From the face of it, you really don’t want to know. You just ask the question because you want to make the person in front of you feel like they’re valued. And that’s the point of being considerate in this situation — it’s not the content of the answer, it’s the intention.Abdulla M. Abdulhalim
Hopefully, this has shed some light on why Thais, even perfect strangers, will always greet a foreigner with a “ไปไหน” or “ไปไหนมา”.
4. Mind your manners
Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.
Being polite doesn’t begin and end with saying please, thank you, and you’re welcome. It involves a comprehensive acknowledgement of another person’s feelings and behaving accordingly. Follow the golden rule and treat others like you want to be treated — from being punctual (respecting others’ time) to not talking over others (exercising self-control) to actively listening to what others have to say.
Apart from the fact that the concept of ‘punctuality’ in Thailand is rather flexible (I believe it has something to do with Buddhist philosophy, but that can be the subject of another post), this is basically another example of ความเกรงใจ in action.
5. Put others first … sometimes
Selflessness can be a double-edged sword for considerate people. While prioritizing others’ needs over our own makes people happy and creates a sense of fulfillment for us, we often lose our ability to take care of ourselves first when necessary and say “no.” However, striking that balance is just as important as being considerate in the first place – otherwise, we fall into the realm of people-pleasing, which leads to a decrease in our own productivity.Abdulla M. Abdulhalim
In Thailand, someone who is ขี้เกรงใจ (and ปฏิเสธคนไม่เป็น) is looked at in a negative light. The advice that would probably to given to someone like that is for that someone to also เกรงใจ himself/herself.
6. Be patient – even when you don’t feel like it
Many people I’ve met who are very nice and considerate would actually say, “Why should I be considerate when 95 percent of the time I finish last?” And I agree with that logic, but you never lose if you are considerate. It depends really on how you look at it. Let’s say you’re civil to someone and they don’t reciprocate. Why don’t you use this as a motive for you to set a better example of how civility is really important for everyone? That goes back to being a positive influence. If you have this positive influence, then you have the motivation to be better and to influence others in a positive way.
I believe that many Thais have been more or less ‘trained’ to be patient since childhood (again I believe that this has something to do with Buddhist philosophy, and that can be the subject of another post), this is basically another example of ความเกรงใจ in action.
Most Thais are taught to ‘keep everything in’ but sometimes when this too many things are kept bottled up for too long, something’s got to give. So don’t be surprised by the occasional news of a usually mild mannered Thai who loses it big time and with a lot of violence involved. Sometimes there is much to be said for frequent but short and controlled vents, instead of just one huge ‘explosion’ (think of a dormant volcano that suddenly decides to erupt), eh?
7. Apologize – but only when warranted
Sorry is a big word. It means that you’re regretting an action you did. Being considerate means apologizing when you made a mistake and apologizing when you THINK you’ve made a mistake. But when you’re a people pleaser or overly apologetic, the only person you’re harming is yourself. People pleasers are usually less productive because they may not be available but make time anyway to help another person. Then that person knows they’re always available for them and they keep coming to you.Abdulla M. Abdulhalim
The main thing that we have taken away so far is the importance of finding the ‘sweet spot’ or balance between our individual interests and of those around us. Sometimes when we are unable to find the sweet spot and we become overly considerate of others, then reality is going to step in and bitch slap us a couple of times. So when you see someone who is trying his/her utmost to be considerate to others but in doing so becomes unable to apologize when he/she does not know something or when he/she has made a mistake or when he/she is unable to spare the time to assist you when you ask for assistance, be the one who understands the situation (there’s also the issue of ‘face’) and be considerate of that person.
Just in this one article alone, we have seen a number of different facets to the trait of being considerate of others. There may even be deep seated but unspoken influences from the type of society involved, societal, political or religious ideals, philosophy and practice all the way to concepts such as ‘face’ behind this trait. There’s also the related notions of ‘respect’ and ‘honor’ and a belief that conformity preserves harmony.
Many Westerners honestly admit that they are not aware of just how wide ranging ‘civility’ and the trait of ‘being considerate of others’ is. Some misunderstand it, some do not fully understand it but feel compelled or pressured into practicing it, some understand it but are unable to practice it, some understand it and practice it as a matter of choice but in doing so fail to hit the sweet spot all the time and finally the regrettably small number of them who understand it and practice it as a matter of choice and in doing so always hit the sweet spot. It’s the same for Thais when it comes to ความเกรงใจ.
So the conclusion (that may sound a tad patronizing, sorry) is that before we can understand another society’s concept of ‘civility’ and ‘being considerate of others’, perhaps we should first understand those concepts in our own society.
Peace and happiness, really.