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

15 responses to “Understanding Thai Generosity

  1. Richard Smith

    Can someone nam-jai a stranger in place of the original source of nam-jai and still have it mean something to all?

  2. “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.”

    And I peronally believe strongly that ones should not ·วง บุญคุณ
    – reminding the people who you once gave favours of what you’ve done for them is a very bad thing to do.

    What goes around comes around anyway.

  3. I agree with matana that it was very un-Thai of your friend to remind you of his act of nam jai to you. Obviously that person was expecting some big things in return from you. In my opinion, this person only had his interest in mind and not yours. This is a good example of how sam-neuk-boon-koon has been corrupted and exploited by a new generation.

  4. Unfortunely we all are not perfect and there is always someone some where that panders to self intrest.

    Thailand Fever is a good book and I intend to read it again with my Fan in Thailand this September to help her prepare for her immersion in American life. With the bombings in London she is now realising why a visa to America is difficult.

    The nam jai part has been easy for me and the pleasure it seems to bring to the recipents is well worth the effort. As a westrener I do have to be mindfull of the Sam-neuk-boon-koon aspect of the relationship as I have the tendency to say thanks and be done with it.

    As far as recieving nam jai from strangers I feel that showing nam jai to strangers is good Sam-neuk-boon-koon. Here in the USA we call that “what goes around comes around”

    Like the new look Richard. More time spent not studying Thai. 🙂

  5. It’s nice to know that some Farang/foreigners understand the Thai way of life. ‘Nam-jai’ doesn’t always mean money you pay for someone to win their heart. Nam-jai must be something truly from the heart. You can feel it by heart, hear by heart. It’s like the wind. You can’t touch it but you can feel it.

    Sometimes it hurts to see that some Thai people show ‘Nam Jai’ to Farang more than they do to people from the same nation. Farang are not Gods, Kings, Queens nor rich. They are neither better. I wish more Thai people to treat each other better than they treat Farang. Farang are just ordinary people. All in all, ‘Nam Jai Thai’ is for everyone.

  6. Sometimes it’s not fair for some foreigner living in thailand Thai people show ‘Nam Jai’ to Farang more than they do to people from the other country. Farang are not , Kings, Queens nor rich. They are neither better. I wish more Thai people to treat each other better than they treat Farang. Farang are just ordinary people. All in all, ‘Nam Jai Thai’ is for everyone. but ifeel i did not get any namjai from thai i’m here for 18 yrs i had been cheated so i don’t know which namjai i can comment. i did’nt get any namjai i got nam chem

  7. As a graduate in Social/Cultural Anthropology, I am always fascinated to hear how different societies “manage” relationships – I know a little of the complexities of Thai society, -the importance of status, respect for parents and family and the benefits and problems arising these.
    However the nam- jai/ sam-neuk-koon-boon equasion is something new to me.
    What has concerned me since reading of it last night is a potentially darker side to what is essentially a form of “Patron-Client” relationship.
    Let us change Richard`s quoted example a little. Lek is an politician and gives Gung, a recent graduate, the referance he badly needs to get a good job in the Civil Service. One day a highly sensitive document passes across Gung’s desk – lets say the first quotes for a government contract that would be advantageous for Lek to know about, as he himself has a sam-neuk-koon-boon relationship with a big businesman who put up money for him to be elected… You can all see where I am going with this.

  8. It reminds me of a time when I was going to a Royal function with the Thai Crown Prince in attendance in Bangkok, I got out of our Taxi with my Thai friend and this flower girl came up and pined a flower on me and my friend, the girl did not ask me for payment for the flower as obviously I did not under stand the Thai language, so she asked my Thai friend for payment of the flowers. To cut a story short my friend told me the flower girl charged her 150 Baht for the flowers, latter on that night and my friend told me that was expensive. Knowing my friend was unemployed and could not afford this sum of money I offered to pay her the 150 Baht for the flowers, but she would not except the money, any way I tried to pay this sum on a few occasions, but she would never except the money. What I found strange, a week latter, in a shopping centre, this friend of mine ask me for money, when she was getting her photographs processed from the function we went to. Any way I paid for her photographs any way, I did not want to cause an argument, even thought they were her photographs, and to me that meant she should pay. Any way I considered I paid for the flowers any way, buy paying for the photographs, but I always thought it was unusual, that she would not except money for the flowers, but would ask for money for her photographs. The other thing that annoyed me about my friend, was she wanted me to pay for Taxi’s when I was quite happy to get the bus, I guess she wanted to experience a bit of luxury in her unemployed life, any way I paid for this as well, just because she was unemployed, I guess I felt a little sorry for her, as if she had a job, I think I would have told her I feel I’m offended by her trying to sponge money off me.

  9. Look forward to similar blogs along the same line.

    Informative stuff for the readers that helps foreigners understand a little bit more, the psychology of a Thai.

    Perhaps a blog on the subject that Khun Don said, The Patron-Client Relationship, as sociologists say. In easy words, it means the ‘pee-nong’ phenomenon and the word ‘kreng jai’.

  10. The Aunty was discussing dhamma with a monk on the subject of making merits i.e. give food to the monks, for those who had passed on. He said that if we were to make merit with an expectation of getting something in return, even that expectation is for our loved ones on the other side, that wouldn’t be a totally selfless act that would garner you that much of good karma. And so on.

    I guess what I’m saying is the same way with Nam Jai. At the core, Nam Jai is based on a Buddhist principal of Karma. You give selflessly, without expecting anything back. For those who realize they’re in debt to you will pay back that favor eventually. But it’s not to be expected.

    On that note, I’m going to selflessly return to my day job and stop slacking off. Heh. 😉

  11. This is an interesting blog, and the excerpt looks familiar… 😉 Thailand Fever is one of the better-quality books amongst all the recent trash that seems to flood the market nowadays.

    I encounter the “nam jai – boon kun” duo nearly every day, it’s such an integral part of Thai life!

    I’d like to add to the above that if the generosity is of extreme importance to the receiver, “boon kun” becomes “gra-tan yu”. Normally, children feel gra-tan yu towards their parents who gave life and nurtured them to adulthood. Saving someone’s life could result in gra-tan yu as well.

    Khun Don, the scenario you wrote about is also as true as it gets, sadly. It’s a classic example of abusing traditions for modern gains. Add a huge dose of nepotism to the mix, and the result is a bunch of incompetent people holding important jobs and performing essential tasks. The consequences make headlines in the news nearly every day.

  12. Siamjai -Thankyou for the confirmation of my thoughts -I thought there was a possibility of my misunderstanding, i.e., corruption arising purely from the more mundane roots of greed and inefficiency, rather than the abusing traditional nam Jai -boon koon relationships.
    Oakmonster -your explanation of the Buddhist basis of the nam jai-boon-koon principle is also very helpful -though I am kicking myself for not seeing this myself – maybe I need to go back to University for a few years, to learn to think again, rather than going to work !

  13. “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.”

    This isn’t my experience.

    But if by ‘stable’ you mean Farangs get milked left, right and center, maybe so.

  14. “Nam jai” well as the saying goes you can put a silk hat on a pig, but it’s still a pig. This just seems like dressing up a situation where poor people sponge off richer relations and their spouses. That one day the farang shelling out this money (who is without a doubt a sugar daddy) suddenly feels his heart swell with Nam Jai is confirmation that he has completely deluded himself about what he’s doing.

    This beautiful concept that you talk about here results in people in Isaan going on about their rich farang relations, who have purchased fancy and expensive homes, motorcycles and whatever the hell else for lazy sots back home. Too much “anthropological” window dressing is put on what is essentially laziness and greed. If farang do buy into that then great, but don’t fool yourself about what you’re doing.

  15. I’m married to a Thai lady. As far as I’m concerned her parents are beyond belief. I’ve built them a house,no thankyou,I send them money,no thankyou…they just expect me to keep them in a comfortable lifestyle. They don’t realise I have a mortgage to pay and the CSA ! They are lazy people and no concept of Western life. Ask a Thai if they have heard of Adolf Hitler or Concorde…Their reply is gong to be: What??????????