When vacationing abroad many miss amazing interactions with locals because they don’t take time to learn how to show respect to the locals. The first and most important way to do this is to understand how to properly greet people within their language and culture.
In Thai, hello is spoken by saying “sawadee crop” (male speakers) and “sawadee ka” (female speakers). But visitors also find another aspect of greetings to be very difficult to understand: the ‘wai’.
Thais ‘wai’ one another when they meet someone for the first time. A basic ‘wai’ is made by extending the fingers and bringing the hands together like a prayer. Next, draw your hands up towards the face so that the middle fingers are just above the mouth and slightly bow the head while lowering the eyes. The ‘wai’ is the Thai version of a handshake.
Thais Communicate Respect Through the Height of a ‘Wai’
Thai culture clearly defines a person’s status in society. All respectful Thais recognize and seek to work within these definitions. The height of a ‘wai’ is one way that respect is communicated to those of a higher rank or age in Thai society. The higher the ‘wai’ the more respect given, the lower the ‘wai’ the less respect.
When ‘waiing’ monks, politicians, and significantly older people, the hands should rest on the bridge of the nose.
An average ‘wai’ would be at a height where the middle fingers touch the point of the nose.
A low ‘wai’ is when the middle fingers touch the chin. This ‘wai’ should be given to children and those significantly younger than you.
When NOT to Initiate A ‘Wai’
Some Thais believe that if an older person initiates a ‘wai’, it’s a bad omen that says they will die first. A ‘wai’ for people clearly younger should not be initiated, but should always be reciprocated if they initiate. However, if a child ‘wais’ an adult, a low ‘wai’ or simply a “sawadee” is an acceptable response.
Overall, Thai culture is difficult to understand, but Thais are very forgiving. When traveling to “The Land of Smiles” proper greetings communicate appreciation to wonderful hosts of a beautiful country!