Suddenly, she – usually, it’s a she – is giving her boyfriend the cold shoulder.
What’s wrong? “Nothing,” she replies – if she replies at all.
Anyone who’s been in a romantic relationship with a Thai knows firsthand the chilly grip of ngon – the unique Thai gesture that’s somewhere between being pouty, mad, and disappointed. It’s one of those cultural habits that are said to lack an equivalent in English language, somewhere up there with greng jai.
In ideal relationships, like the symmetric yin and yang, ngon should go together with ngor, the act of attempting to rectify those unsaid disappointment and hurt feelings.
While this epitome of indirect communication may strike non-Thais as immature and confusing, a cultural expert said the seesaw game of ngon and ngor only takes place in a relationship that’s intimate enough to have expectations from it, not from strangers or enemies.
“Maybe foreigners would think that being direct is the best way to solve problems, but Thais are ngon because we think, ‘You should know why I’m mad, how can you not know?’” Nattaporn Panpothong, a lecturer on Thai language at Chulalongkorn University, said in an interview. “‘We are so close already, you should already know how I feel.’’”
Naturally, this distinctive dynamic can lead to hiccups in Thai-Farang relationships – when the Thai way of placing reliance and expectations between people clashes with the Western society’s focus on individualism and independence.
Jirawat Arayanakorn, 24, says her French boyfriend Hugo, 22, has never ngor her even once in their two years together.
“He knows something’s going on when I’m ngon, but he never gets that he has to ngor,” Jirawat said. “I tried to signal my annoyance to him by grumbling or going silent, but he still doesn’t know that I’m ngon. I eventually have to vent it out directly or get mad at him.”
Her explanations of the seemingly alien concept to her boyfriend is often met with outright rejections of her feelings, like “Why don’t you just say it directly?” or “I think it’s childish and unreasonable.”
What Makes People Ngon?
To say ngon and ngor are common in Thai concept of romance is an understatement. The conflict is found – expected, even – in countless movies, series, musics, and dramas that have anything remotely to do with relationships.
As a famous 2005 pop song “Miss Call” goes, “Your darling is calling, please pick it up. Don’t let me wait with tears in my eyes. Your darling is calling to ngor you. Don’t let me be discouraged by the long wait, it was my fault.”
To prove the prevalence of ngon and ngor culture, Khaosod English recently visited Siam shopping district in Bangkok downtown, a favorite hangout for Thai couples. Every couple interviewed for this story said they experienced at least one instance of ngon and ngor.
Panchita Kiwarawut, 23, said the most recent time she ngon at her 26-year-old boyfriend Jaruwat Tiyatanchat was because he told her not to spill water while she was pouring it.
“I thought he was using rough language at me and I built it up the ngon in my head. So I became ngon, even though he later explained it was just a warning,” Panchita said.
Jaruwat, that smooth-talking water-conserver, says he usually ngor her by hugging her, talking to her sweetly, and taking her out for desserts.
The latter method appears to be a common playbook. Nuttawut Khunwisespong, 18, said he used the same ngor tactics – taking his girlfriend out for ice cream – when he accidentally fell asleep before calling her, causing all hell to break loose in the outburst of ngon.
“I usually get ngon when he doesn’t spend enough time with me,” said his girlfriend Kunlayakorn Tuankum, 18. “But if he apologizes and talks nicely, then it’s fine.”
Even Jiranan Jiapaisankul, 22, and Nutdanai Puangthong, 21, who described themselves as a couple who don’t usually fight, were able to recall the latest ngon/ngor episode.
That was when Jiranan gave her boyfriend flowers as a romantic gesture, but Nutdanai refused them. She went silent in offense.
“I learned that it’s better to talk about problems straight-up, not just let stuff build up,” Nutdanai said.
Venusians VS Martians?
Nearly all of the interviewed couples said that the woman was usually the party who is ngon more often. This seems to be true even in a relationship that transcends biological sex, as seen in the case of Nichapath Lookmueang, 27, and her girlfriend Wannapha Tongsomrit, 25.
Nichapath is “tom” or “tomboy,” a woman who represents the masculine partner. She dates a “dee,” or “lady,” or a woman who takes up the traditionally feminine role – similar to the Western ideas of butch and femme.
In their 12 years together, Nichapath says she’s always been the one to ngor when Wannapha gets ngon. Wannapha’s biggest cause of ngon is Nichapath’s long work hours as a personal trainer.
“It’s true that some people get ngon over nonsense things, or things that the other person doesn’t even know why, and that being direct would solve the problem quicker,” Nichapath said. “However, ngor is the correct thing to do in this case because it makes her feel better, and it shows I’m making the effort and not lacking in my duties.”
But one couple who spoke to Khaosod English identified the man as the serial ngon-er instead of the woman. He said it was the most effective way of getting his point across.
“If I tell her straight up to fix a problem, she won’t improve,” Klong, 18, said of his girlfriend, Manao, 17. “She spends too much time on her phone!”
Cartoonist Pratchaya “Poysian” Mahapauraya runs Facebook page “Sundae Kids,” which is based on themes of relationship and romance. She said ngon probably has something to do with women’s well-known habit of overinterpretation. Thai women are also known to be indirect, making it hard for less perceptive partners to know that a ngon is taking place.
“Both men and women ngon, but women may have the tendency to ponder and overthink more which can lead to more ngon feelings,” said Poysian, whose online comics are followed by about 1.8 million fans.
Ignore Ngor at Your Own Risk
With all that said, some say the concept of ngor might be even harder for foreigners to understand than ngon. Although there are plenty of jokes in the West about the woman saying she’s “fine” when she’s not, the approach to solving said problem is different.
Jirawat said her French boyfriend Hugo has started to try to cheer her up while she’s ngon after she explained the concept to him – but still, it’s not the same as ngor.
“It’s not like Thai couples where the person who ngor will try to wear down the other person by acting nice,” she said. “Thai couples know that ngon equals ngor, but this action and reaction doesn’t exist in [Western] realm. How can they ngor if that action doesn’t exist in their dictionary?”
Because ngon is so ingrained in relationships, negligence to reciprocate it with ngor can escalate the situation, as couple Peerapol Kornchaoi, 22, and Surattana Srisam-ang, 22, know all too well.
Peerapol works the night shift at a 7-Eleven in the northern suburb of Bangkok whereas Surattana is an employee at Suvarnabhumi Airport, at the capital’s extreme eastern corner. The couple hardly see each other, and the different schedules take its toll. Surattana gets ngon often – but Peerapol’s not a ngor type of guy.
“The ngon spirals into arguments and then fights,” he said. “But we have to make up eventually.”
Nattaporn, the Chulalongkorn University linguist, said foreigners struggling to understand the concept of ngon should embrace it as a cry for understanding and sympathy from a different culture, instead of dismissing it as immature or childish gesture.
“It’s not about maturity, but a social way of thinking,” Nattaporn said “It’s about having hopes that someone intimate with us will understand how we feel, and being disappointed when they don’t. Even mature people can have this feeling.”
After all, ngor isn’t confined to romantic relationships or the youth. Friends also ngon at friends over perceived slights. Even Thai elderly are subject to it.
For instance, a Thai granny might be especially quiet to everyone after none of her kids take her out for a family dinner or dismiss her opinions, whereas elderly Westerners might take pride in doing things independently or helping themselves.
“It’s like greng jai. Farang might say we are too greng jai and not individualistic,” Nattaporn said. “While this can be true, we can also think that in a society where no one is greng jai at all, it can lead to chaos.”
So what to do when your Thai girlfriend turns away in a flurry of ngon after you make a passing reference to your ex or didn’t pick the restaurant that she secretly wants to eat at for her birthday?
As illustrated in one of Poysian’s comics, use the magic word to smooth things over: “I’m sorry.”
Additional reporting Tappanai Boonbandit