When to Wai in Thailand? And to whom, and how.

  Wai or Not to Wai…

..that is the question.

Searching through my mental backlog of blog ideas I remembered this was one of the first I thought to write for Thai-blogs I just never got around to it.  The Wai is one of the most famous of symbols that people recognize as being ‘Thailand.’ To do it right is almost an art form and something that many Thais take great care to express properly and sincerely because not only is it ingrained from an early age into Thai culture it also comes from the heart and it is literally a true measure of how much respect to show someone.

From the foreigners perspective if you want to socialize in Thailand so Thai people will a) be somewhat impressed and b) prove not all farangs are uncultured bores only into Thai women (or men if the case may be) and ruining Thai culture with our western ways then take the time to learn some Ways of the Wai.

At first glance the ‘Wai‘ looks simple and easy, however to understand the rules to a proper Wai you soon realize this is no simple slick Thai style ‘handshake’.

If you ever watch a Thai perform the wai it is amazing the skill they have. They can gracefully and respectfully wai carrying anything!  In the beginning making my first attempts to wai I was doing good just to manage a wai with two bare empty hands but I felt so awkward and self conscious! Yes even with something as simple as pressing your palms together in greeting I would do it so fast my hands made a clapping sound and it looked a bit strange.  It takes practice.

A wai is commonly given when

  • Giving Thanks
  • Good Bye
  • Apologizing
  • Praying to the Buddha
  • Begging

The rule to understand is not how to Wai but to whom. For example try this brain teaser on for size:

A young foreigner meets a Thai girl for lunch. She does the wai and he returns the gesture. To go back to his hotel he hails a taxi. The older driver, upon receiving a good tip, wais him, then drives off. The foreigner waves his hand to mean ‘never mind.’  Some days later, the girl invites him to her house. An old man walks out and she introduces her father, whom he instantly recognizes as none other than the taxi driver.

Now, should the westerner, say a manager of some firm (status), recognizing the taxi-driver father (elder person), wai first? Or not wai but mumble something in English as a detour? Or merely extend a hand for a handshake? Do nothing to see what happens first?

Before he can sort himself out, a woman looking younger than he walks in and his girlfriend introduces the woman as her stepmother. Should he wai this younger woman first or wait for her to do it first? An elderly woman now comes in and it turns out she is the chief servant. He becomes confused. Wai quickly?

This is actually from the book “Do’s & Don’t in Thailand” available online. There are numerous books on Thai customs but this book is great. It’s written in an easy to read style but straight forward and also quite funny!

So your curious to see how to try one of these? well for starters here are the basics. First up is the

Rules of Usage

The most common use for the Wai is in greeting someone. You clasp your hands together in front of you and lower your head while smiling and saying ‘Sawasdee’ for hello. Gentlemen can bow slightly at the waist while Ladies may make a small courtesy.

The Wai is also meant as a sign of respect and is often shown by a person of lower status wai-ing to someone of higher status first. There is no need to wai any service type individual and this includes waiters/waitresses, shop clerks, parking lot attendants  and anyone else you pay to perform a service. Usually, they will wai you (or sometimes salute like in the military).  If you feel that you MUST wai these people only do so if they wai you first and then make your wai very generic i.e. palms to the chest and no bowing of your head.  Sometimes, just a nod of recognition is all that is needed, or at the very minimum, a nice smile.

The higher the hands are held in relation to the face and the lower the bow, the more respect or reverence the giver of the wai is showing. The wai is traditionally observed upon entering formally a house. After the visit is over, the visitor asks for permission to leave and repeats the salutation made upon entering. The wai is also common as a way to express gratitude or to apologize.

Positions of the Wai

The person of lower status would also bend lower, lower his head more and clasp his hands higher. You will usually guess the status of two people that meet by watching the way they wai each other. The lower the head/body, the higher the hands, the higher the status and respect offered.

It is also protocol that if someone wais you, you don’t have to return the wai but it is very disrespectful to not acknowledge it.  Monks and Thai Royality will never return a wai but a King will wai a monk, such are the rules of status in Thailand.

When to Wai

When will always depend on ‘who‘ as in who has the higher status or seniority. If you are lower in status then you wai first. Most tourist and farang generally would not have to worry about wai-ing first out of general respect from Thai people for your status as a foreigner plus we aren’t expected to understand Thai ways.

However you do go a long way by wai-ing with the proper respect to monks, members of the Royal Family and elder persons. Be careful you don’t go in the wrong way by wai-ing to children, service people like cooks, clerks, taxi drivers or anyone obviously younger than yourself. People and friends of equal status may only wai each other when coming or going.

Origins of Wai

The strongest cousin to the wai is the Indian Namaste which means welcome, relax and enjoy. Namaste, an Indian word is the highest form of greeting considered an honorable tribute from one being to another. The Chinese way of greeting, or ‘Koh Kung’, also uses the same handlike gesture. It’s pretty obvious that Thai culture not only shares this tradition but was influenced a great deal by it. I’ve always thought Thailand was a unique blend of East and West Asia.

Plus the Buddha is often shown in a similar pose with his hands clasped together as a sign of peace. Whether the origin of the wai comes from India, or China or perhaps sprung completely on it’s own from the people that tamed Thailand eons ago. the fact is it is Thailand. It’s the heart and warmth of the Thai people and it is with grace, sincerity and beauty that it is offered. Makes the handshake look kinda primitive afterwards doesn’t it?

So even if you can’t speak a lick of Thai to save your life if you know the rules, always smile and master a good Wai.

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2 thoughts on “When to Wai in Thailand? And to whom, and how.

  1. My understanding, a long time ago, was that I should Wai a person wearing a suit or other “upscale” clothing, while a head-nod and smile was a suitable response to a wai from a server or other person who is “inferior” to me in the context of that particular meeting.

    The cabby? No wai. Girl’s father? Wai, because the context is different. His young wife? Maybe a tiny wai, but no more than that.

    Namaste is a little easier for me these days, because I’ve not only visited India multiple times in the last decade but have stayed mostly with friends there instead of in a hotel or guest house, which gave me a chance to pick up on their social behavior and to mimic it.

  2. Pingback: Westerners Doing Business Negotiation with Thais – Avoiding Pitfalls and Perils | American Expat in Chiang Mai

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