Before getting into jai yen, it’s necessary to look briefly at the word jai. Hua jai is the Thai term for “heart”, as in the anatomical organ, though jai alone is more often used in a psychological context to convey all manner of feelings and address issues of personality, attitude or disposition. In this sense, the word is similar to how it’s used in English expressions like “she puts her whole heart into it”, but the subtleties go deeper in Thai.
Jai lai, for example, refers to one who is “mean-hearted”. Son jai is “to care or be interested”, and to have nam jai is “to be generous”, or more literally, to have a “heart that flows like water”. To be told that you possess jai dii, or a “good heart”, is to receive one of the highest compliments a Thai can give.
Jai is also a profound term in Thai Buddhism. In this sense, it refers to something that’s believed to be intangible yet present in every individual. The term “spirit” doesn’t quite capture it as this hints at some sort of “soul” or “self”, a concept that Buddhism firmly rejects. In the Buddhist sense, the heart is one’s inherent “pure awareness”. Though it’s typically overshadowed by thoughts, judgments and emotions, the jai is believed to be pure and perfect in every way. It’s also an inherent connection with all earthly and cosmic phenomenon, or Dharma. To experience this fully is to experience enlightenment.
The word yen literally means “cool”, as in akaat yen or “cool air”. Like its English equivalent, yen denotes a soothing quality used not only in reference to temperature but also the way people think and act. Jai yen, then, is a heart characterised by composure, calm and patience. The ability to “keep cool” in tense situations is highly admirable in Thai society.
The opposite term, jai rorn or “hot heart”, describes one who has “lost their cool”. A person with jai rorn might “fly off the handle” and react with anger and violence.
In many Western countries, it’s relatively normal to raise one’s voice and become verbally confrontational to a certain point. Of course, this might lead to a physical fight (or worse) anywhere in the world, but in the US (for one), it’s generally acceptable to speak with a sharp tone of voice that expresses a “controlled” amount of anger if, for example, a service is paid for but not performed to satisfaction.
When it comes to confrontation in Thai society, the stakes are a lot higher. Speaking to someone with an angry, raised voice is not done lightly. In fact, many Thais go to great lengths to avoid what some might find to be nothing more than straight talk. This ties into another important Thai cultural phrase, kreng jai, to be considerate or not impose oneself on another person in a negative way.
For better or worse, a fundamental point of Thai culture is to keep from “losing face” at all cost. In other words, it’s often considered better to leave potential problems unaddressed rather than risk the humiliation, or loss of face, that might result from airing dirty laundry. What to some foreigners might seem like normal arguing or complaining could be interpreted by a Thai as an all out attack on their dignity.
The fact that confrontation is frowned on in Thai culture doesn’t mean that Thai people always keep a cool heart. After experiencing a society that, on the surface, appears to be made up of peaceful, gentle and non-violent people, many travellers are surprised to learn that Thailand has one of the highest gun murder rates in the world.
The nature of the violence is generally different than in other violent countries, such as the US, which sees a lot of random muggings and indiscriminate killings. In Thailand, violence often erupts from some sort of confrontation among people who initially have no ill intentions. In the kingdom, the most dangerous thing you can do is cause the wrong Thai person to lose face in a public situation, especially if they (and you) have had a few drinks.
If a confrontation gets heated, Thai people often repeat “jai yen jai yen” in an effort to cool down the hot hearts. In this sense, the phrase could also be translated as “take it easy”, “relax” or “chill out”, and it’s often used this way, for example, by mothers trying to calm down their impatient kids. But once a certain threshold has broken and tempers boil over, crimes of passion can (and do) occur quickly.
If you run into a problem in Thailand, first consider if you might be better off saying mai pen rai. If you feel the issue does need to be worked out, stay calm and politely explain your point of view, perhaps even with a smile on your face (even if you don’t feel like smiling). If you end up in a shouting match, it most likely won’t escalate into an all-out blood bath; but it’s worth maintaining a cool heart just in case.
Jai yen might save you a black eye in Thailand, but in a deeper sense, it can be a powerful internal instrument for “when the going gets tough” no matter where you are.
I first heard the phrase a decade ago while working in a Thai restaurant on a painfully busy night. With far more food orders than he could handle, a young Thai appetizer chef began to panic. Seeing this, the Thai head chef (himself also thoroughly “in the weeds” but with decades of kitchen experience) stopped what he was doing, walked over to the young cook, looked him in the eyes and said two words: “Jai yen“. The youngster regained his composure and blasted through the orders. I took the idea to heart (no pun intended), and it’s helped me through countless high stress situations over the ensuing years.
Travel is an adventure, but it can also be very stressful. Next time you’re stuck in an airport for hours due to a delay, or a drunk heckles you on the street, or you reach into your pocket to discover your cash, credit card and passport have vanished, breathe in … “jai yen” … breathe out … “jai yen”. No matter the situation, it’s always best to face it with a cool heart.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.