First, we need to consider what the ‘Wai’ is. The reality is that it is a standard method of greeting people in Thailand. It dates back to the 12th century and is done by raising both hands clasped together in front of you.
In times long ago this was done to show you were holding no weapon, which is, strangely enough, the reason why foreigners shake hands. Let us now look at when, how and with which people we should ‘Wai’.
To start with, the height of your hands in relation to your head displays how much respect you are showing to the person.
The easiest method of how to ‘Wai’ is, place your fingertips will be slightly below your chin, Ensure the palms are together such as in the praying posture that is used in many countries around the world and does not forget to bow slightly too.
Your elbows should also be tucked into your sides, in a relaxed manner; this is the ‘Wai’ that you use for people you do not know very well.
To show slightly more respect your fingers should be at about the tip of your nose. For people of a higher standing or are older than you, then your fingertips should be about level with your eyebrows.
For royalty and monks, your fingertips should be level with your hairline, this should be done with a bow from men and a curtsy for the ladies.
The ‘Wai’ is central to Thai etiquette, this is a key factor in the Thai lifestyle. To get a more detailed explanation on how to wai, click here.
These rules are not that hard and fast, there will be times that people are busy or have too many bags with them, at such times it is not so important if this the case, a smile, and a nod will do the trick. Furthermore, Thai people are not that serious, they love to have a joke with people, socializing here is central to life, and as a foreigner, if you forget you will be forgiven. Do not take thing too seriously here; this is ‘the Land of Smiles’.
The Rules for People from Overseas
As a visitor, you will not look Thai, and your dress code will be completely different, please, see here the Thai dress code. Try going to a Thai school, all the teachers will be dressed in long sleeved shirts, black pants or skirts Male teachers will be wearing ties and that is pretty uncomfortable with the climate here. If you go to the government office, you may notice that the staff will be dressed in a semi-military uniform; this is how the country works. Visitors do not have to strictly obey Thai manners. Your best efforts will be highly welcomed, as I have said prior if someone ‘Wais’ and you are busy, just give them a friendly smile and a nod. There are of course some basic rules that you need to follow, please see, basic do’s/dont’s, different rules apply to foreigners in Thailand. You will also find that if you are in a restaurant, you are not expected to ‘Wai’ the staff, a friendly smile is all that is needed. In addition, it is not necessary to ‘Wai’ a child, but sometimes teachers are expected to; remember you are a visitor here. If you are visiting someone’s house then you should ‘Wai’ them on your arrival, and again on your departure.
Differences in Culture
There are times, you may shock the Thais, for example, if you are from France a European kiss on the cheek will certainly raise eyebrows here, especially if you are a man and you do this with a lady who is not your girlfriend or wife. This happens from time to time, but if they have worked with foreigners for some time they will understand it. At times the ‘Wai’ can be rather confusing, for example, if you are at a large meeting everyone will be ‘Wai’-ing and bowing, you might start feeling a little overwhelmed by it all., just relax and go with it.
Thoughts on Thai Culture
Thai culture is extremely important to Thais, so always accept it as a part of their lifestyle. To some foreigners it can be a little over the top, please remember you are a visitor, and therefore a representative of your country. Manners and being polite here are extremely important in Thailand. There is a saying here in Thailand, “A ‘Wai’ is like making the shape of a Lotus bud. The lotus is the most important symbols for Buddhists”. Patience and understanding are the key features of Thailand, remember to accept their ways at all times and you will have few problems and enjoy your stay all the more.