Monday, November 21, 2011


I’ve heard that the native peoples who live in Arctic have many words for snow. Whereas I would have to describe snow as powdery, slushy, icy, and so on, they would have a distinct word for each of these. This makes sense. If you live in an environment where snow plays a central role, your vocabulary would reflect that so that you could communicate more fully about what was important to you.

When I lived in Thailand, I learned enough Thai to carry on a simple conversation. One thing that struck me about the Thai language was how many words they have for feelings, many more words than we have in English. I might say I feel annoyed, but in Thai, there could be different words for the annoyance you feel when someone is late, when your cable service is interrupted during a key play in the game, or when a mosquito is buzzing around your ear.

The key role played by feelings is reflected in the typical Thai greeting, Sabaay dii mai kha? Loosely translated, this means, Are you comfortable? But the word sabaay means more than physical comfort. It includes the more subtle level of emotional comfort or well being. There is no adequate translation in English.

This concept of sabaay permeates everything and is central to communication. In a language that has no word for a simple, blunt “No,” Thai communication is geared to creating and maintaining an environment of sabaay. This can lead to some misunderstanding with Westerners such as myself, who value directness and depend on the technical precision of words, without regard to, or even awareness of, the subtle levels of emotional communication going on beneath the words.

I carry many treasured memories of my years in Thailand. If you came to my house, you would see my love for that country reflected in the artwork and furniture. But nothing I brought with me is more valuable that what I learned about paying attention to sabaay. In English, we might think in terms of courtesy, empathy, compassion.

If we take sabaay into account in our words and interactions with others, we will surely create a more open space for connection and genuine communication.

May your day be filled with good sabaay.


  1. This is something so very special to learn...I wish only the best sabaay for you as well...and what a lovely idea it would be to practice this within our country as well...and perhaps switch our fast paced everyday life into one where courtesy, empathy or compassion stands above all....what a world that would be....thanks so much for sharing's something I'd enjoy learning more about....

  2. Galen: Thank you for that lesson. I have never heard that term. I will not forget sabaay.

  3. Linda--You're welcome.

    Karen--It is a lovely idea, and is woven into the language on many levels. Thanks for your comment.

    JJ--It is a lesson I have carried with me since I lived there. Thanks for commenting.

  4. What the world needs now is connection open and kind communication! Amen.

  5. Thank you so much for this lesson Galen.
    Was so wonderful to learn.
    I look forward to more posts from you. :)
    Keep well.

  6. I envy your time spent in another culture. It gives you a perspective and depth that is impossible for those of us in one country and culture.

    I am always amazed when our pastor mentions the original Greek word that is translated into English. In virtually every case, the Greek word is much more precise and multi-facted...much like the language of Thailand.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  7. I appreciated learning about this greeting and it's meaning and very very quickly came to mind the Christmas Carol with the line "comfort and joy"
    I am thinking it is"God, rest you Merry Gentlemen" but not on home turf to look it up..

    I just believe so strongly that we do not really communicate here any more...everything is sound bites and short hand, because we do not really want to connect - we think we are being independent and unique - I think we fear true connection

    You have me thinking now. This is good first thing in the Morning

  8. Tess--So true. We seem so entrenched. I think our rigid stances come from fear. Thanks for commenting.

    Rochelle--Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I look forward to hearing more from you.

    Bob--I've been very fortunate to live in three other cultures and to travel to many more. Of all the places I've been, though, Thailand affected me the most, perhaps because it was the most unlike my own culture. Every day there was an adventure. And I learned things there that I have carried with me ever since. Thanks for your comment.

    Patricia--Yes, I think that is the right carol. And yes, I agree that communication has been reduced to cryptic text messages, even when face to face communication is possible. Thanks for your comment.

  9. lovely, what a richness words add; my heart is warmed & cheered just reading this. Good sabaay to you as well, lovely (:

  10. I just finished writing a blog post about my wish for sabaay, although I didn't know the word for it. And I also mentioned snow! We are tuned in to the same channel today :)

  11. Thank you for this insightful post Galen :-) The world could do with way more words that describe emotional comfort. If it did... there would probably be more empathy... more understanding... more compassion... more love... and kindness even. Maybe that would make the world a whole lot better.

  12. Nan--Thank you for the kind words. And for your comment.

    Kara--Great minds indeed! I'll check out your post right now. Thanks for commenting.

    Jean--Yes, there is a whole vocabulary out there we English speakers don't know! Thanks for commenting.

  13. I wish we had the word for sabaay in our western culture. How nice to begin an encounter with such care for the other's feelings. Seems very transformative. Sandra

  14. Very nice Galen and I bet living in Thailand was truly a cultural experience. Happy Thanksgiving!

  15. Hi Galen,

    I remember coming across this word in one of your previous comments on some blog. Which one it was escapes me at this point.

    While I value simplicity and directness, I can see the wisdom behind the many different words used to describe the various types of feelings and the degree. Words alone are often inadequate to describe how what we experiece or truly feel. Therefore a langauge that explores the subtle levels of emotional comfort and well being has its uses in the world today.

    If we all connected on a more genuine instead of superficial level with compassion, it would truly be a different world.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article with us! :)

    Irving the Vizier

  16. Sandra--It got me to thinking about what sentiment is expressed in the most common greetings in different languages. It would be an interesting study, don't you think? Thanks for commenting.

    Cynthia--Yes, it was an adventure every day. I felt so lucky to be there. Thanks for commenting.

    Irving--To me, it signified that these subtle levels were important enough to warrant a more nuanced vocabulary. It is no accident that Thailand did not get drawn into WWII, I think. I know that it is more complex than that, but still.... Thanks for your comment.

  17. that is such a very nice article

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  18. Hi Galen,

    I am intrigued that you learned the Thai language. How long were you in Thailand?

    If I have to pick one other south east asian country for a holiday, it would be Thailand. Thailand is very close to Singapore, where I come from. I enjoy the gentleness of the Thai and their delicious cuisine. It is possible to get cheap and well-cooked food at street stalls.

    So I'd say you've made a great choice in picking up some Thai!

  19. Thank you for teaching me in this post - for every person I meet is my greatest teacher and you were put in my life today to learn a little about Thailand. Never been there but one day shall.

    So I love this word "compassion" through comfort. OHHH what a wonderful world this would be if we could all be more concerned about our fellow man.....

    Sabaay to you my friend,

  20. I absolutely love getting new understanding through meditation upon the values and meaning in phrases from other languages.

    That took more words to say than I intended, but I want you to know how delighted I am to receive this gift from you, Galen, as well as from the Thai.

  21. jhopes--That is an interesting article about all the different greetings. It would be fun to understand more about what those greetings actually mean so that we could understand the cultural context. Thanks for your comment.

    Evelyn--I was in Thailand three years. I learned enough Thai to get around most anywhere and to carry on simple conversations. I did take classes there, but because I was the only American in my office, I also picked up a lot at work. I traveled a lot in Asia, but I never made it to Singapore, although I regretfully had to turn down a job offer there! Thailand is a fascinating place and I hope you get to visit there sometime. Thanks for your comment.

    Nancy--We do find teachers in unexpected places, don't we? Ironically, one of my job responsbilities was mentoring the Thai lawyers in my office who were handling Western clients. As it turned out, however, I learned much more from them than they ever learned from me! Thanks for your comment.

    Mikey--I share your love of expanding my understanding of the world through learning about other languages. Thanks for your comment.

  22. Stopping by to wish you a happy Thanksgiving.


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