The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

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The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

Post by lee » January 11, 2010, 1:57 pm

The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too
By Jeff Petry (Magazine Issue 12 Jan-March 2010)

The raising together of the hands as in prayer and with a slight bow is one of the most charming and delightful customs that new visitors to Thailand notice. However, it is a great deal more than just an elegant greeting: social relations and honorifics are made visible, and the waier also shows that they are a civilized person, one who has manners and knows how to behave properly in the Thai cultural context.

Most Thais know that Westerners shake hands when meeting one another, especially in formal circumstances, or when meeting someone outside their intimate social circle (where constant waiing would not be practical). It is not uncommon to see a polite Thai being introduced to a Westerner hold out their right hand, while the polite, culturally aware Westerner wais the handshaking Thai. As always, a smile and a polite nod will diffuse any awkwardness.

The handshake developed as a way for two Westerners to show that they could not stab or shoot the other person; this is one reason why left-handed people were regarded as suspicious - they could shake with their right hand and easily murder you with the left!

What is key to this social gesture is who wais whom, when, in what order, and the height of the wai, along with the accompanying slow bow of the head. People wai their social “superiors” high. (Being a Westerner, I must put hierarchical social terms in quotes!) For an individual, the wai is at the top of the head, and the head bowed as much as possible, often all the way to the floor.

For monks, the wai goes up to the forehead with a low bow. For elders, the hands are raised to the nose with a modest bow; and for equals to the chin. Social “inferiors” are waied at chest level or lower. The hands and elbows are always held close to the body. And, in my experience, the Westerner must make an effort to perform the wai slowly, elegantly, and respectfully – not always characteristics associated with big, clumsy, sweaty foreigners.

It is also common to see waiing when Thais accept gifts from each other, or during various ceremonies. Wais are often accompanied by a greeting: sawasdee; or a thank you: khob khun or khob jai (Isan/Lao); or an apology: kaw thote.

It is important to emphasize that “intent is everything”: for example, when one’s hands are full, a one-handed wai (preferably with the right hand) is perfectly acceptable; and if that’s not possible, a smile and a nod are just fine.

When, then, should Westerners wai? I have seen many tourists who wai everyone, all the time, and look silly to locals because of it. One loses dignity and “face” by waiing one’s obvious “inferiors”: children, employees, servants, and so on.

A simple rule for the visitor or newcomer would actually be to wai only when waied, except in formal occasions or obvious circumstances. As foreign tourists and guests, we are typically given a nominally high status by the Thais, who wai us disproportionately high. It is best in these circumstances to return the wai (lub wai) at the same level in order to return the compliment.

Mercifully, it does not matter all that much if you get it wrong. Thais are among the most tolerant people on earth and appreciate the effort and the gesture of respect - regardless of how badly we manage to bungle it.



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Re: The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

Post by thrilled » January 13, 2010, 12:51 am

I'm in their country,I don't have any problem at all in doing that when I meet them.But then I also say one or two sentences to them also.

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Re: The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

Post by Welshboy » February 25, 2010, 2:24 am

[quote Texpat]
Nah. A smile and a nod and some kind words will do it for me.

Same here. A nod handshake a few Thai words is all that is needed, out on the street.

Formal occasions are a different. As you would in any country. You would listen to the person escorting you & do the appropriate formalities

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Re: The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

Post by KHONDAHM » February 25, 2010, 5:41 am

Nice post. I'm left-handed and learned something new. Watch out! :pirate:

After being here awhile, one (who cares about this sort of thing) should be able to discern when to wai and at what height and when to just politely nod in acknowledgment.

I find myself mixing it up depending upon the situation, company I am with, and status of the person.

Older family and older family of friends, always.
Younger family or kids, never.
Staff at stores, companies, agencies, and such - meh...depends on whether I want something from them or they want something from me and what the person/people I am with do.
Ranking government officials, police, etc., always.
Professionals such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc. get a deeper than usual nod (females) or handshake (males).
Very close friends get a granny hug (females) or "dap" (males) - they like that it makes them feel like they are doing something really cool and progressive.

Edit: In case anyone is wondering: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dap_greeting (it's actually a manly sort of hug and never a fist bump - was a fist bump until that went mainstream)

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Re: The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

Post by Bertie_Wooster » February 25, 2010, 6:01 am

No need to wai, just a nod of the head of acknowledgment. Easy!



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Re: The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

Post by Welshboy » February 25, 2010, 6:03 am

Khondahm
Just be your self, be true to yourself. Dont worry. God loves you & you will find happiness.

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Re: The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

Post by Welshboy » February 25, 2010, 6:13 am

Sorry Khondahm
Realised what you just said, about left handed.
Be up front and the people that know ,they will understand.
All the best mate :D

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Re: The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

Post by KHONDAHM » February 25, 2010, 6:22 am

Huh? :-k Not sure I get it in the context of the thread, but ok. ;)

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Re: The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

Post by Welshboy » February 25, 2010, 6:56 am

In soom cultures when you offer you left hand. This is not good.
In soom cultures the right hand is for eating.
The left hand for wiping you bum.
Not a good thing to do. sorry mate, such is life!

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Re: The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

Post by nkstan » February 25, 2010, 7:29 am

I see the wai as a polite social gesture and do it as such when meeting new Thais or returning the wai of a Thai.

I think it is elegant and nice looking,but I do not subscribe to class distinctions between people and think this is unfair and discriminatory human relations.Actually causes Thais to grow up thinking they are better or less than others.

I think it is pure BS when a falang gives the impression that this sttement is true:[quoteWhen, then, should Westerners wai? I have seen many tourists who wai everyone, all the time, and look silly to locals because of it. One loses dignity and “face” by waiing one’s obvious “inferiors”: children, employees, servants, and so on.][/quote]

IF you are not a diplomat or in Super class conscious group setting,Thais understand that you are a foreigner and don't EXPECT you to know everything about their culture!

Personally I do what I feel comfortable with,in a polite way because ,to continue talking in a general way,the majority of Thais do give a big fiddly fuss about falangs except for what they canuse them for ,and all your ''groveling''won't change that!

So don't worry about''waing''properly,just take it as information! :roll:

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Re: The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

Post by WBU ALUM » February 25, 2010, 7:34 am

nkstan wrote:I see the wai as a polite social gesture and do it as such when meeting new Thais or returning the wai of a Thai.

I think it is elegant and nice looking,but I do not subscribe to class distinctions between people and think this is unfair and discriminatory human relations.Actually causes Thais to grow up thinking they are better or less than others.

I think it is pure BS when a falang gives the impression that this sttement is true:
"When, then, should Westerners wai? I have seen many tourists who wai everyone, all the time, and look silly to locals because of it. One loses dignity and “face” by waiing one’s obvious “inferiors”: children, employees, servants, and so on."
IF you are not a diplomat or in Super class conscious group setting,Thais understand that you are a foreigner and don't EXPECT you to know everything about their culture!

Personally I do what I feel comfortable with,in a polite way because ,to continue talking in a general way,the majority of Thais do give a big fiddly fuss about falangs except for what they canuse them for ,and all your ''groveling''won't change that!

So don't worry about''waing''properly,just take it as information! :roll:
Nice response, Stan. I concur.

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Re: The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

Post by trekkertony » February 25, 2010, 8:25 am

I wonder how many of us would feel miffed if we put our hand out to shake with a visitor to our own country of origin and the gesture was ignored. Reading between the lines there would be instant indignation. So why is it offensive by some of the posters to return a wai when in LOS. Whilst l do not pretend to fully understand the nuances of the thai system of wai, the visual language you see when you do engage the people in their own cultural rituals speaks a thousand words.

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Re: The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

Post by KHONDAHM » February 25, 2010, 1:31 pm

As a guest of the Kingdom, IMHO, it is only polite to attempt to reciprocate according to the local customs (without being awkward about it). I consciously left my ethnocentrism on the other side of the border, but some prefer to carry it through customs along with their other baggage. Up to you. I do not feel my American culture is superior to the local culture and thus it is easy for me to acquiesce.

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Re: The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

Post by nkstan » February 25, 2010, 1:31 pm

trekkertony wrote:I wonder how many of us would feel miffed if we put our hand out to shake with a visitor to our own country of origin and the gesture was ignored. Reading between the lines there would be instant indignation. So why is it offensive by some of the posters to return a wai when in LOS. Whilst l do not pretend to fully understand the nuances of the thai system of wai, the visual language you see when you do engage the people in their own cultural rituals speaks a thousand words.
:lol: :lol: Some falangs tend to believe that a majority of Thais are in someway offended if a falang doesn't wai properly,when in fact,most smile and enjoy the fouled up attempt!Only Thais that think of themselves as''better'' than others ,ever sit in judgement of these mis-steps :lol:

Ignored handshake feelings are probably the same as when one says ''hello''/''good morning''/''sawadee'' to other falangs and Thais that completely ignore you!I am an American that is used to greeting all who make eye contact with me and there are many many falang and ''hi-so acting type'' Thais(usually of chinese or Viet descent)that completely ignore me on multiple occasions.with 12+ years of continious residency,it is the most baffling behavior I have experienced while living here!

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Re: The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

Post by maaka » February 26, 2010, 8:29 am

heck what are you all scare of..making fools of yourself...its only alittle wah....heck my people press noses together and share each others breath when meeting old, or new friends. Before the whiteman came, we never sook hands..Some people tend to shy away from our type of greeting for fear of embarrassment, or getting the other persons flu, or some such thing. However, those who do not shy away, show us that they are respecting and recognizing our culture, and as such are accepted just that bit more friendlier....its up to you, but I will wah

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Re: The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

Post by trubrit » February 26, 2010, 8:36 am

Every man to himself I suppose. I must admit I wai when it is appropiate but I still feel uncomfortable at being kissed on the cheek by the men in Italy . :lol:

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Re: The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

Post by trekkertony » February 27, 2010, 6:41 pm

Being kissed on the cheek in Italy is a far better than being bitten on the back of the neck at the Sydney Gay Mardi Gra

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Re: The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

Post by jackspratt » February 27, 2010, 6:49 pm

How's the crowd, tony?

You all behaving yourselves? :D

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Re: The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

Post by trekkertony » March 1, 2010, 5:26 pm

Thanks Jack,

Do you mind if l keep your stiletos and pink shawl. Thanks for the loan of them

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Re: The Thai Wai – And Why We Should Too

Post by jackspratt » March 1, 2010, 7:38 pm

That's fine - keep them for next year. I've gone straight. :D

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