The common method of greeting somebody in Thailand is the wai. You’ve seen it before. It’s when a person places their palms together and slightly bows to you. Looks simple, but it’s actually a little trickier than that. C’mon – if Ronald McDonald can wai properly, then you can too!
If you plan to visit or live in Thailand, you need to know the wai. It’s like a western handshake, only there are a few rules to follow. You use a different wai depending on how much respect you want to show the person you’re greeting. Whether somebody is older, younger or of a different social rank than you will affect your Thai salutation.
Monks / the Royal Family
Monks and the Thai Royal Family are shown the utmost respect in Thai culture. To wai them properly, you bow your head and raise your hand until your thumbs touch your forehead. If you’re ever lucky enough to encounter any member of the Royal Family, you’d need to kneel and place your palms and forehead against the ground.
Parents / teachers / older people / superiors at work
To wai this group properly, bow your head and raise your hand until your thumbs touch your nose.
Friends / people the same age
Bow your head and raise your hand until your thumb touches your chin. It’s a very subtle bow.
Kids should always wai you first. If you want to return the gesture, place your palms together at the top of your chest and bow your head subtly.
Knowing when to wai
The wai isn’t just used for greetings. It’s also used for giving thanks, goodbyes, apologies, begging and praying. For the greeting, you only wai somebody the first time you see them in a day. It’d be ridiculous if you wai that same person five times in a day.
Also, don’t wai everybody. You don’t need to wai the clerk at 7-11. I mean, would you shake hands with a 7-11 clerk every time you bought beer? No, that’d be awkward. Same with the wai.
Side note — Last week I taught my students about American culture. Among topics covered in the lesson was the proper method of the handshake. It was a little silly, but they got a kick out of it. For example, eye-contact during a handshake is respectful in western culture. So is a firm handshake (nothing worse than shaking hands with a limp rag). Seems a lot of the folks in Thailand use the ‘limp rag’ handshake method, so I wanted to show the younger generation how we do it in ‘Murica!
In westernized areas of Thailand like Bangkok and Phuket, it’s not such a big deal to always use the proper wai. But many of the Thai folks that live in small, rural communities are more traditional Thai people. If you’re venturing into the lesser traveled parts of Thailand, I recommend knowing this stuff. Waiing builds goodwill with Thai natives, but waiing properly impresses and astonishes Thai natives!