The Art of ‘Sungkan’: Untranslatable Javanese Cultural Emotion

Everything was so hard for her. Since her last diagnosis, her body is wired with medicines and Natrium Chloride. It was impossible for her to move around. She definitely needs help in order to walk. Her sons were always be there while working with their laptops. They were physically healthy and emotionally available for her. One of them looked at her noticing the tension in her face. “What do you need?”. She already prepared in her brain to formulate the most selfless request. She finally said “Nothing.” She did not have heart to interrupt her sons from working.

Why did the lady finally take down her support request from her sufficiently available son? She is obviously in need of physical support. This is one of the untranslatable Javanese emotion: ‘Sungkan’.

Undestanding ‘Sungkan’

In Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia, the official dictionary of the Indonesian language compiled by Language Development and Fostering Agency and published by Balai Pustaka, it was described as follows (I translated them into English at the right side):

Sungkan (Adjektiva/Adjective)

  1. Merasa tidak enak hati.
  2. Malas (mengerjakan sesuatu)
  3. Enggan
  4. Menaruh hormat
  5. Segan
  1. Feeling uncomfortable
  2. Not motivated (To do something)
  3. Unwilling
  4. Respectful
  5. Shy

At first, if we see the meaning individually, it does not make sense. It is generally interpreted as being shy. On the fourth definition, it mentions about being respectful, which hints to the actual meaning. I must admit that none of those explanatory is close to represent the actual sense, so this is my best attempt on defining the meaning of ‘Sungkan’ based on my daily experiences being surrounded, living and interacting with Javanese community

‘Sungkan’ means the feeling undeserved of service, gifts or any thing that prevents oneself from receiving them because of the guilt for interrupting/bothering others

Another example, when you visit your friend’s house, their parents offer you cookies, it is natural for Javanese people to being ‘Sungkan’ on accepting the cookies. They might feel guilty for making the host busy (cleaning dishes and cooking more for guests). When you are being ‘Sungkan’ on taking the cookies, the host who is coming from same culture, might see you as thoughtful and polite. Being ‘Sungkan’ can be considered as an act of civilization and culture. The guilt can be due to respect to the person, whether because the person is older, is your boss, or even your own son. Being ‘Sungkan’ also shows how close you are to the other person. Usually, people tend to feel ‘Sungkan’ when they meet stranger, because they assume the worst on the stranger’s reaction for bothering them. If you know the person so well you might feel less ‘sungkan’ because you know your favor won’t affect your friendship.

In Eastern Indonesia, such as Torajan tribes, Ambonese and Papuan tribes, people are more direct on expressing their feeling. Thus there is no ‘Sungkan’ in their language. Nonetheless, since Javanese population started to dominate Indonesia, ‘Sungkan’ attitude is started to embedded even into non-Javanese.

‘Sungkan’ in Other Southeast Asian Culture

In Thai, they have similar emotional expression to describe being embarrassed on asking a favor that bothering others as Greng-Jai (เกรงใจ). Greng jai is an adjective, therefore, someone is greng jai. Prefixing kwaam will turn it into a noun. ความเกรงใจ (kwaam greng jai) This is one of the many jai expressions in Thai. The word jai means heart/mind/spirit and when used idiomatically with other words it makes expressions that describe feelings. The word greng means to fear or be afraid.

By looking at the geographic and cultural pattern, this term might be only existed in countries that highly value social relationship. Probably, the economic status heavily relies on politics thus it is important for Indonesian and other Southeast Asian to maintain relationship with the contributors that includes by acting ‘Sungkan’.

The Impact on Mental Health

“There is a word in Thai that I’ve learned lately, “greng jai”.  There isn’t an exact translation in English (Google it if interested), but it relates to a degree of consideration – not wanting to bother people.  When it comes to mental health issues, which you can’t see like a broken leg, don’t be “greng jai”. Since mentioning Pranaiya’s PPD to people, as we were experiencing that, and more recently with her and Arthur’s passing, it is amazing how many people have opened up about PPD and/or general mental health issues they have had or someone they know have had.  It is everywhere.  And because people aren’t aware of this, when someone we know develops a mental health issue they bottle it up and don’t know who to turn to.  This must change. Life is precious.  Love those around you.  Check in with people every now and then. And for those suffering, don’t be too “greng jai” – your friends and family care about you and want to support you in whatever way possible to tackle what life has thrown at you. You are not alone.” Hamish Magoffin, Founder of Pranaiya and Arthur Magoffin Foundation.

Indistinctly, the attitude seems harmless. Nonetheless, a worth million dollars business can be hindered by this gesture. Many critical decisions rely on how the people interacts and this harmless attitude becomes great and dangerous obstacle. That sometimes need to sacrifice their own feeling or needs. Being ‘Sungkan’ in your social life may secure your relationship with the person. It is also encourage us to be more independent. However, this culture teaches people to suppress their own emotions and rather prioritize other needs. This leads to a serious mental health issue. Unfortunately, in Indonesia, mental health is still low significant that not many institutions provide enough facilities and supports for mental health care. Mental Health is not visible. You must talk about it. Worse, having the burden to yourself only worsen you mentally. I am writing this to encourage people especially young children to ask help when you are really in need. And for others, do not shame them who ask for help. Asking help is not an embarrassment. It is an act of courage. Love you.

Connect with ‘Sungkan’ People without Disrespect Their Emotion

Being ‘Sungkan’ is not visible to people who does not know Indonesian or Thailand culture. When they refuse to accept your offer, it is almost convincing that they don’t need it. Especially, to Dutch people, that has the opposite culture which embodied with ‘bespreekbaarheid’ attitude. Bespreekbaarheid literally means speakability. It is the efficiency in speaking that usually short, direct and to the main point. Sometimes to non-Dutch it sounds offensive although they do not have the intention. Indonesian ‘Sungkan’ and Dutch ‘bespreekbaarheid’ in communication of course might negatively affect their relationship as friend or even as colleagues. It is impossible to change people with ‘Sungkan’ culture as it is said before, this culture partly contributes to their economic and business. It is also a boundary that we need to respect. When you encountered with friends with ‘Sungkan’ culture, it is important to earn their trust. Indonesian value relationship so much. When you earn their trust, they tend to be more open about themselves. Ice breaking activities is helpful that Indonesian started to build relaxed impression on non-Indonesian. Either you hang out to bowling game together or casual eating out.

Interesting Reading

(in Bahasa Indonesia) Memaknai Budaya Sungkan Emosi Khas dari Jawa

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