What is wai in Thailand? Well, 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 traditional 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. Foreigners are expected to reciprocate a wai as a sign of respect – failing to do so is often translated as rudeness.
As a foreigner, familiarizing yourself with greetings in Thailand is vital – not only in avoiding miscommunication, but most importantly, honoring cultural differences.
So … what is wai in Thailand?
A wai (pronounced “why”) is the traditional greeting in Thailand; equivalent to a handshake or wave here in America. Hands press together in front of the chest and raise accordingly with a bow. Elbows stay down at your side – foreigners tend to lift them perpendicular to the ground. Wai is typically paired with “sawasdee kha(female)/khrab(male)” (hello), “khob khun kha/khrab” (thank you) or “ko tot” (I’m sorry).
“Wai” is this so important??
Hierarchy, social status, and age play key roles in determining how and when to wai. Anyone of a higher status, such as monks, receive the most respectful wai. 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.
Okay, chances are you won’t run into the king, but you WILL run into monks! As previously mentioned, given their status, don’t expect them to return the greeting. You may not always need to wai them in this way (keep reading to find out why!), but you will need to honor their status. For instance, we didn’t know our bus station had seats reserved for monks, so when they arrived, we had to give them up and find another place to chill.
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 greeting of the same age or social status; most typically friends. Palms fold in front of the chest 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.
A wai is also used when entering sacred spaces such as temples, shrines, and places dedicated to the king. You’ll notice many Thais giving their highest wai inside temples as part of Buddhism. Foreigners aren’t expected to do the same, but it’s encouraged to offer a formal wai if a monk is present. Most importantly, 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. If you wai to children passing by on the street, it wouldn’t necessarily portray respect, but rather show that you don’t understand Thai greetings.
Also! If you’re a nightlife junkie like me, DO NOT WAI. Whether it’s to bartenders or security guards – it’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