Although highly individualistic, resisting regimentation, Thais nevertheless realise that inner freedom is best preserved in an emotionally and physically stable environment. Therefore, they believe, social harmony is best maintained by avoiding any unnecessary friction or turbulence in their contacts with others. Accordingly, the strong Thai feeling of krengjai means an extreme reluctance to impose on anyone or disturb his personal equilibrium by direct criticism, challenge or confrontation. In general, people will do their utmost to avoid personal conflict.
Outward expressions of anger are also regarded as dangerous to social harmony and obvious signs of ignorance, crudity and immaturity. Indeed, during normal social intercourse, strong public displays of dismay, despair, displeasure, disapproval or enthu-siasm are frowned upon. Accordingly, the person who is serenely indifferent (choei choei) will be respected for what is considered an important virtue.
Within such a behavioural framework, Thais share very definite views on what constitutes friendship and enjoyment. Sincere friendship among Thais is extremely intense; the language is rich in expressions which reflect the degree of involvement and willing self-sacrifice such relationships entail particularly among men. A “puean tai”-literally “death friend”- is a companion for whom it would be an honour to die. Should a friend become involved in difficulties, his friend feels obliged to assist him, regardless of the danger to himself, because “tong chuay puean”-“One must help one’s friends”. This requirement is a sensitive point of honour.
On the level of acquaintanceship, politeness predominates. In a gesture frequently misinterpreted by visitors as flattery, a person who has put on a little weight will find himself being told he looks thinner.
The purpose of such remarks is not to ingratiate, but to relax an acquaintance with what is intended as a pleasant remark that will make him feel good, and thus make the social situation more comfortable.
A quality valued by Thais in all inter-personal relationships is namjai –“water of the heart”- an untranslatable concept that lies somewhere between compassion and Shakespeare’s “the milk of human kind-ness”. A stranger visiting a village will seldom be seen as an intruder and a subject for suspicion and distrust. Much more likely, the villagers will have the namjai to take him in, feed him, offer him a bed in one of their homes, and generally treat him as a friend.
Enjoyment of any activity is gauged by kwam sanuk – the pleasure or fun to be had in doing that particular activity. Going to temple festivals, meeting old friends, enjoying one’s favourite food, finding a new work routine, climbing a tree to pick a fruit, preparing merit-making ceremonies are all sanuk. Mindless, repetitive work, standard routines, any activity involving drudgery or, equally disastrous, boredom, are very defi-nitely mai sanuk –“no fun”.
Kwam sanuk often stands behind a decision to pai tiao (literally ‘to go around’). Generally, pal Liao means travel, which all Thais love. More specifically, it means leaving the house for relaxation or diversion : curiously wandering around markets, visiting neighbouring villages, walking across fields, taking the evening air, visiting popular shrines, going to an out-of-the-way restaurant famous for its succulent duck noodles, or ambling through crowded festivals to talk with strangers. Pai tiao almost always involves informal socializing which is inevitably sanuk.
Another cohesive force in Thai society is a sense of sincere personal concern for even casual acquaintances. Generally, Thais are eager to learn about others’ intimate affairs and have no inhibitions about asking personal questions. This is not done to embarrass people or gather data for gossip but is actually an authentic expression of friendly interest.
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Article Added on Sunday, December 20, 2009
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