Understanding Thai Generosity

A market in Thailand

Today I want to explain to you an important Thai concept which is crucial if you are planning on staying in Thailand longer than the average tourist. Actually, there are quite a few things which often lead to a misunderstanding between Thais and foreigners. However, today I want to focus on nam jai which is Thai generosity and sam-neuk boon koon which is honoring debts, Thai style.

Within the first few years I was in Thailand, I learned about nam-jai. It is an easy to understand concept. However, it wasn’t until a particularly unpleasant incident happened that I found out about the repayment system called sam-neuk-boon-koon. There is a Thai person who suddenly one day became upset with me. They felt that I wasn’t paying enough deference towards them and that I hadn’t been one hundred per cent loyal to them. That person went on to remind me that it was them that had shown me around when I first came to Thailand.

At the time I couldn’t understand why they would suddenly be angry. As far as I was concerned, I had said “thank you” to them at the time and the subject should have been closed. After all, many years had passed since. Anyway, I thought I had paid back my “debt” many times by helping them with their business – often in my freetime. I didn’t really understand what this person’s problem was or why they would be dragging up past history in this manner.

There is a recently published book called “Thailand Fever” that explains these concepts remarkably well. What is unique about this book is that it is aimed at both partners in a Thai-Western relationship. The book is written in both English and Thai so that both people involved can fully understand each other. We often talk about “do’s and don’ts” for foreigners visiting Thailand. However, what is also needed is a list for Thai people who come in contact with foreigners. Maybe if there was one in existence before, then the above problem I experience wouldn’t have arisen. This book helps explain this problem for both sides.

I will paraphrase the book here but I would recommend buying the book to read more. We will be giving this book away to one lucky reader later this week!

Thai Chili at the market

Nam Jai – น้ำใจ

You could say everything starts with nam-jai, literally “juice of the heart” or “flow of the heart”. While independence is at the core of a Westerner’s self-esteem and image, Thai judge themselves and others in Thai society primarily based on the degree to which they show nam-jai. Nam-jai is “generosity”, a desire to give one’s time, resources, and attention to others just for the good feeling it generates in both. A person who shows nam-jai will not ask for money or any kind of payment in exchange for her generosity. The Thais will even feel uneasy accepting a payment that is offered for her generosity, because this suggests that she did it for the payment instead of the good will.

Unless they are particularly cosmopolitan, the Thais you meet will assume that you are like them, and that you too must derive most of your self-esteem from your show of nam-jai. For example, your girlfriend is proud of you and wants to show you off as a generous person. Without asking you directly, she may give you opportunities to be generous. She may take you out to dinner with friends. She won’t say “P’ Bob, do you mind paying for my friends’ meals?” Instead, she’ll assume that you, as a person who has more money than her friends, will want to show your generosity by paying for all her friends.

We Westerners hate this type of behaviour. We see it as a shameless manipulation. Does she see you as her sugar daddy or what? Remember, from a Thai perspective, it gives people self-esteem to be generous. Your partner and her family are not trying to take advantage of you. They are doing the same thing they would do with a Thai man who they think might be able and willing to help the family.

In the common case where her family is poorer than you, you know that they will never be able to pay you back anywhere near the amount you’ve been shelling out to them. But the fact is that they will always remember your generosity. Many Westerners who struggle day-by-day over whether or not they are a “sugar daddy” suddenly let go when, one day, they are surprised to find themselves at the receiving end of nam-jai.

Thai fish at the market

Sam-neuk-boon-koon – สำนึกบุญคุณ

What makes a nam-jai based society able to survive is the boon-koon system, specifically the value of sam-neuk-boon-koon. Sam-neuk-boon-koon is the balancing element that makes the system work. To the same intensity Westerners are brought up to be independent, Thais are raised from childhood to Sam-neuk-boon-koon.

Roughly speaking, Sam-neuk-boon-koon means to repay favours that people do for you (to “honour your debts” in Western terms). But there’s more to it than that. Suppose Lek, a manager at ABC Company, does a favour for his old friend Gung by finding him a job at the company. Gung was raised to Sam-neuk-boon-koon and so he:

1. makes a commitment and makes himself available to repay Lek’s favour when Lek needs something.
2. appreciates Lel’s generosity by showing Lek respect, deference, and consideration in manner and speech.
3. frequently reminds himself of Lek’s generous act and his own commitment to return the favour to Lek.

Thai society is a cycle of nam-jai and Sam-neuk-boon-koon supporting each other. People do favours out of nam-jai and so they do not ask for anything in return. But then people who receive favours Sam-neuk-boon-koon and voluntarily make themselves available to help the giver in return. The system works, and society is stable, simply because the vast majority of people in Thai society do honour the system and return their debts.

One final example to illustrate this concept: Suppose Gung puts in one or two weekends of overtime work – roughly the same amount of time that Lek spent to write a recommendation for Gung and get him a job. Now, suppose that Lek needs Gung to come in on many, many more weekends. If Gung was like a typical Westerner, he might get annoyed. He might think, “Wait a minute! I’ve paid my debt – enough is enough. It’s Lek’s problem, not mine. Now Lek is taking advantage of me.” But Gung is Thai. He would come in on as many weekends as he possible can, because he wants to show his nam-jai to Lek.

Source: “Thailand Fever” by Chris Pirazzi and Vitida Vasant

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