Have you ever reached out your arm for a handshake but received a hug instead? Or perhaps you went in for a hug and unexpectedly got a kiss on the cheek?
Clapping of the hands (Zimbabwe), sticking out the tongue (Tibet), and honi (Polynesian greeting of pressing noses and inhaling) are just a few ways people greet each other around the world (Ciolli, 2020). A wai is the official greeting of Thailand – hands folded in a prayer position with slightly bowed heads. Seen as a sign of respect, foreigners are expected to reciprocate a wai, and failing to do so can portray rudeness.
As a foreigner, familiarizing yourself with greetings in Thailand is vital – not only in avoiding miscommunication, but most importantly, honoring cultural differences.
‘Wai’ you should learn how to wai in Thailand
A wai (pronounced “why”) is the traditional greeting in Thailand; equivalent to a handshake or wave here in America. Hands are pressed together in front of the chest and raised accordingly with a bow. Additionally, elbows should be kept against your side – foreigners tend to raise them perpendicular to the ground. Wais are typically paired with “sawasdee kha(female)/khrab(male)” (hello) but can also be seen when saying “khob khun kha/khrab” (thank you) or “ko tot” (I’m sorry).
How to greet someone in Thailand
Hierarchy, social status, and age play key roles in determining how and when to wai. If encountering someone of higher status, you are expected to give a more respectful wai – higher hands and a lower bow. Monks for example should always receive one, since they are at the top of the hierarchy. Likewise, if passing street vendors or running into children, a wai is not necessary – a smile will suffice, since they have a lower social status. The same goes for foreigners – Thais of higher authority may anticipate a wai from you, but probably won’t reciprocate. Keep in mind, the longer you hold a wai, the more respectful it is (foreigners tend to rush them).
1) The Highest wai
As the most significant figures in Thailand, the king (as well as the royal family) and monks receive the highest wai. Thumbs rest between the eyebrows with a slight bow of the head, along with a complete bow to the ground. Although you’ll probably never run into the king, when it comes to monks, they should always be greeted with a wai (even by foreigners). The highest wai is given to monks seated in temples, or those passing by in the morning to receive their offering. As previously mentioned, given their status, don’t expect them to return the greeting.
2) A Formal wai
Formal wais are given to anyone of a higher status whether it’s briefly passing monks in public spaces, seeing coworkers (of a higher position), or children greeting their teachers. Fingertips should equal the height of your nose, and be given with a slight bow of the head. In some cases, you’ll see women (usually children) also give a small curtsy. This is generally the safest wai to give if you aren’t sure of a person’s age or status.
3) A Casual wai
Casual wais are used when seeing anyone of the same age or social status as you; most typically friends. Palms are folded in front of the chest and held for a brief moment. This equivalates to a quick wave or smile when running into someone you know back in America; a casual, yet polite greeting.
When should/shouldn’t you wai?
Always remember hierarchy! As mentioned earlier (because it’s VERY important!), you should wai whenever meeting someone of the same social status or higher. Equate this to greeting people of higher authority (such as your boss, the mayor, or governor) back home. Be mindful and don’t overuse it – this undermines the respectful intent behind a wai.
The wai is also used when entering sacred spaces such as temples, shrines, and any areas dedicated to the king. You’ll notice many Thais giving their highest wai inside temples as part of Buddhism. As a foreigner, you aren’t expected to do the same, although it’s encouraged to offer a formal wai if a monk is present. And as always, be mindful of your etiquette.
Although foreigners may view it as a friendly gesture, wai-ing those of lower status (such as street vendors, children, or laborers) is inappropriate. Even if it’s an elder working a food cart, a wai wouldn’t necessarily portray respect, but rather show that you don’t understand Thai greetings. Also, wais should not be used in the nightlife scene, whether it’s to bar girls or club employees – that’s an inappropriate setting for such a gesture.
Using a country’s traditional greetings are a simple way to show respect as well as a willingness to learn about their heritage. When visiting Thailand, greet with and give thanks using the wai. Not just for the sake of “fitting in”, but to show respect and acknowledge that you’re ultimately a guest visiting their home, which they’ve graciously opened up to you.
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Ciolli, C. (2020, April 8). Beyond the Handshake: How People Greet Each Other Around the World. Retrieved April 21, 2020, from https://www.afar.com/magazine/beyond-the-handshake-how-people-greet-each-other-around-the-world