The Thai wai is not just a greeting or way of saying “hello”, but an action of respect that represents the social status of the recipient.
The wai is an integral part of organising the complex social hierarchy that binds Thai society together. It can be said that properly understanding the Thai wai – knowing when to use it, how to use it and who with – is a huge step in understanding the way Thai society works.
While as a foreigner you may feel inclined to treat everyone as an equal, waiing those of obvious social inferiority may create a situation of embarrassment for the inferior, and as such will make future encounters awkward for that person.
The key to delivering the correct wai is to remember this basic rule: The social inferior always receives the lower wai, and the social superior always receives the higher wai.
That said, you will witness exceptions to this rule. For example, you might see a Thai person return a wai to a child out of fun or affection, but as a foreigner you shouldn't, and instead should stick to the guidelines set out below.
A wai is performed by pressing palms together with fingers pointing upwards. The head (chin) is then lowered down towards the thumbs of both hands. The lower the head comes down to meet the thumbs of the hands, the greater the respect being shown. In some instances, as we we will explore below, the hands adopt a higher position in relation to the head.
Make sure you keep your elbows in when you perform a wai. Foreigners have a tendency to let their elbows spread out and raise up. This is wrong. The wai is more often than not an expression of inequality and therefore it is elegant, graceful and controlled in its execution.
Again, you will notice some exceptions in the form of the wai. For example, I notice that in modern society, particularly in Bangkok, the head tends to be lowered toward the top / side of the fingers as opposed to the traditional lowering of the head to the thumbs, as described above.
I have also noticed that in more rural areas of Thailand, the thumbs tend to be brought up towards the face in a more pronounced manner, and the chin and nose rested on top of the thumbs as the head is lowered – regardless of the status of the person being waiied.
Again, don't worry about what others are doing; just stick to the traditional guidelines and you'll be fine.
Who to Wai & How?
1. Someone of equal status or when you are unsure of someone’s status.
Pull your hands close to your body, with fingertips reaching to about neck level but not above your chin. Now lower your head (chin) slightly towards your thumbs.
2. Someone of lower status than you.
Follow the same instructions as number 1 (above), but this time keep your head straight or only very slightly inclined as you wai.
3. Someone of higher status than you.
Bring your hands up higher this time, and lower your head so that your fingertips reach above the tip of the nose.
4. Monks and Buddha images
To wai a monk at a temple, you must get on your knees. Men should sit on their heels, and women with their legs to one side.
Bend your head and body low from the waist down, while keeping your bottom as low as possible. When your head is almost touching the floor, place your palms on the floor (traditionally, the right hand should touch the floor first) and rest your head on top in the wai position. Now straighten up back to the seated wai position. If waiing a Buddha image, repeat this process three times.
Wai Dos & Don'ts
- You will often see Thais stop while walking to wai sacred places such as shrines. Whether on a bus, in a car, in mid-conversation with a friend or on the phone, Thais will usually take a moment to pay respect to a shrine with a high wai, as set out in number 3 above.
- Do not wai children, servants, labourers, street sellers or other people with an obviously lower status than yourself. However, if you are friends with any of the above people, and say hello or speak to them on a regular basis, you might choose to respond with an equal or casual wai.
- Do wai the elderly, unless they are servants or street vendors.
- Do not wai bar girls.
- Do not get offended if a child or other social inferior doesn’t wai you. Thais are often unsure as to whether to wai foreigners since they know foreigners do not perform wais in their home countries.
- Do wai a monk if you go to speak with one at the temple (as set out above), though there is no need to wai every monk you see walking down the street. You should, however, step aside and allow the monk ample space to walk past unhindered. If you are woman, step away from the monk and keep your distance while walking. Monks take a vow of celibacy and so a woman should not present herself in close proximity.
- If you are lucky enough to be in the company of royalty, do wai with your head lowered right into your thumbs. In this situation, many Thais will prostrate themselves out of respect, but a foreigner would not be expected to do this. But don’t expect a wai back. The King, and other members of the Royal Family, do not wai commoners. Members of the Royal Family do wai monks.
- Don’t keep waiiing everyone. A wai is not to be used instead of a hello. Overusing a wai will make you look silly and devalue its meaning.
A Final Word on Wais
If in doubt, unless it is a child or other obviously lower status person, simply return the same wai you are offered. It's easy to get hung up on whether you are waiing correctly or not, but it doesn't matter to Thai people if you get it wrong.
People understand that you are trying to do the right thing and appropriate the culture. This is appreciated and no one is going to think badly of you for performing an incorrect wai.
** Some of the information in this article was researched from the book Culture Shock! Thailand, By Robert & Nanthapa Cooper.