The Thai wai is not just a greeting or way of saying “hello”, but a gesture 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 with who – 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, wai-ing those of obvious social inferiority may create a situation of embarrassment for the inferior.
Strange to us, maybe, but true all the same.
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 it is advisable not to do this, and instead should stick to the guidelines set out below.
Why? Because Thais can read the situation and body language far better than we can; it comes naturally.
How to Perform a Wai
A wai is performed by pressing palms together with fingers pointed upwards. The head (chin) is then lowered down towards the hands, with the nose almost falling above the top of your fingers.
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 tucked in when you perform a wai: Foreigners have a tendency to let their elbows spread out and raise up. We also have a tendency to rush the wai. This is incorrect.
The wai is more often than not an expression of inequality and therefore it is elegant, graceful and controlled in its execution. Don't go too slowly and make a big deal of it, but don't flick your hands up and down like you can't be bothered.
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 back of the thumbs tend to be brought up towards the face (nose area) in a more pronounced manner, and the nose rested on top of the thumbs as the head is lowered – often regardless of the status of the person being wai-ed.
Again, don't worry about what others are doing; just stick to the traditional guidelines and you'll be fine.
Some Thai people have a slightly unique style, but for us it is best to just keep it simple and correct.
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, elbows in with fingertips reaching to about neck level (see image above) but not above your chin. Now lower your head, tilting your 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, press your hands together and raise them up to your nose. Now bow your head into your thumbs. There is a good example in the video below.
When at a temple, depending on the occasion, it may be appropriate to get on your knees and wai, but have a look at what others are doing first.
Traditionally, men sit on their heels, and women with their legs to one side. The idea is to then bend your head and body, lowering 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 wai-ing a Buddha image, this process is generally repeated three times.
Wai Dos & Don'ts
- 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. Strictly speaking, you shouldn't wai the elderly if they are in a working capacity as a servant or street vendor, but I think this is a bit of a grey area as I see many Thais do this.
- 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, 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 (nose area) 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 wai-ing everyone for everything. 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 wai-ing correctly, 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.
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