This page is intended as a brief guide to help you avoid the most obvious and common culture gaffes.
One of the most common faux pas committed by foreigners in Thailand is neglecting to remove their shoes when entering people's homes, temples and some shops. It cannot be underestimated how important this is to remember. Always, without fail, you must remove your footwear before entering someone's home and while first time visitors to Thailand may be forgiven for their mistake, it is most certainly frowned upon if you forget this.
You can't address Thai culture without talking about feet. Your understanding of the way Buddhism and tradition influences Thai thinking is critical to avoid certain faux pas. The degree to which Thai people are influenced by these social norms is varied, but it's best to assume you should follow the advice on this page at all times.
The head is considered to be spiritually above everything else. It is considered very rude to touch someone on the head, where it is believed the soul resides. If you go to a Thai barber of hair dresser, the person touching your head will probably apologise in advance.
Conversely, the feet are considered dirty, profane. You absolutely must not point your feet at images of the Buddha, step over such images, use your feet to point at, or nudge people. If you accidentally touch someone with your feet, don't panic, just apologise with sincerity.
Stepping over people as the sit and eat (Thais often sit on the floor to dine) is very rude indeed. Don't even step over their food. Walk around or wait for them to move.
Never sit with your feet resting up on something else, therefore showing the bottom of your feet to others. This will be exacerbated if you have raised your feet above the heads of others. When visiting temples, do not sit with your feet out in front of you and pointing at Buddhist statues etc, rather, sit with your legs and feet pointing behind you.
Some people may even be offended if you use your feet to touch items associated with the head, such as pillows or hats. Offense may also be caused if you step on coins of banknotes, which have images of the King, a highly revered figure in Thailand.
Without fail, you must remove your footwear before entering someone's home. Thais like to keep their homes clean and unlike westerners, can't stand the idea of dirty shoes being worn indoors. In many places of work and government offices, you will also be required to removes your shoes.
While accidentally using or placing your feet inappropriately will in most cases be forgiven, the potential to cause great offense, and long term misunderstanding, is very real. This section outlines the key caveats.
Sitting in a branch of Bangkok Bank, I was slouched in the chair, waiting for my wife to finish whatever business she was taking care of. The young male bank clerk who was sorting out some paperwork for us, needed to walk in front of me. In doing so, he made his best effort to lower his head and body as he walked past, smiling meekly at me. The same thing happens at our local Amphur... in fact, pretty much everywhere. Conversely, if I have to walk in front of anyone that is clearly older than me, in a position of authority, or simply someone I want to show my respect for, I always make the effort to lower myself a little as I do so... It's just good manners in Thailand.
Go to an expensive restaurant in North America or the UK and you will most likely be served by staff that exude confidence, almost dominance. In Thailand however, you will be served by staff that appear (to your unaccustomed eyes) to be capitulating to you in such a way that you'd think they were the slaves of the restauranteur. It's just not the case, the staff are just showing you their good manners by serving you in a way that makes you feel special.
This sort of behavior can be a real eye opener for first time visitors to Thailand, especially if you're from a country where everyone is supposed to be considered 'equal'... and something I want to try and address here, because it's a vitally important part of Thai culture that you MUST understand if you are to know what it is to be a well mannered Thai, or to integrate into Thai society.
More recently, I've been living with my elderly mother in law, a person who for whom I have great respect, and we live in a very old fasioned backwater in the far north. She's a deeply traditional Thai woman and many of her old fashioned ways have rubbed off on my wife, who is also ultra traditional. I take great pleasure in showing that respect by humbling myself at appropriate times, e.g. when saying goodbye before going on a long trip, after going home after a long absence... or even just by making the effort to lower my head as I walk past her, if the moment is right...
I've spent many years in Thailand but in many ways, I'm only just beginning to get it. The ability to lower yourself in this way is not actually 'lowering yourself', rather, it is an act of 'elevating' the person to which you are showing this gesture. Thai people place enormous value in one's ability to gracefully demonstrate your humility in their presence. The gesture is greatly appreciated both by that person and those observing. You are showing yourself to be respectful, polite and cultured...
When you begin to delve into the complexities and nuances of the Thai language, it becomes even more apparent that Thais always try to establish a place for themselves in the hierarchy of respect for the people they are talking to. The language used is intrinsically linked to how they see themselves in relation to others. For example, without me listing all of the variants, a very common one when speaking to someone that is of a similar age and standing to you, would be to use the word 'khun' before the name of that person, which roughly translated might mean 'good person'... i.e. it's shows respect. As the friendship progresses, the 'khun' might be dropped altogether. When there are larger age differences, much more formal forms of address might be employed... and as those relationships progress, informal terms are established...
The need to 'aow jai' everyone ('please' everyone), is fundamental to the Thai mindset. Showing respect and humility goes a long way to doing this.
After reading this page, you're probably not much closer to understanding the Thai 'gift of humility'. It's one of those things you have to experience to really taste it's flavour. It's something that has shored up the polite function of Thai society. It's why Thai kids are well mannered, rather than the arrogant brats we suffer in the west. Even though it doesn't fit any notions of equality you might have, you are certainly not showing weakness, or lessening yourself in any way, by showing humility in Thailand. Quite the opposite in fact.
I could write page after page on this subject but I will try to summarise here.
The Wai is a gesture you will see everywhere and every day in Thailand. It is so very often misunderstood by foreigners but with a little thought, you will soon start to instinctively know when to wai and when not to wai.
Basically, it is a greeting and a gesture of respect or gratitude and is done by pressing your hands together and gently bowing. The depth of your bow indicates your status in comparison to the person you are greeting. It effectively replaces the western equivalent of a handshake but there are more subtleties to a wai.
The best way to learn is by observing. For example, if you are meeting the parents of your girlfriend for the first time, or after a long absence, you would most certainly wai and bow quite deeply to show the respect you have for your spouse's parents. However, when they return the wai, it may only be fleeting and they may not bow very much at all. Similarly, if you are meeting an older and superior colleague, you should again wai and bow a little deeply.
Conversely, it is very unusual for adults to wai a child, even though that child is expected to wai to you... are you getting the picture? It's all about status. Many tourists who visit the bars of the red light districts will make complete asses of themselves by waiing a bargirl or a waitress. It is absurd for you to do so as you are indicating that you have a lower status than them. They may laugh politely if you do this but secretly, they will be deriding you with their friends. It is not necessary to wai people who are in your employ, or those that are providing you with a service, such as your household staff or a taxi driver, for example.
A reader of this website wrote to us to point out what he considers to be inaccurate information in the above paragraph, so we include it here. Thanks to Peter Litchfield for the following comments...
I would like to point out that there are 3 levels of 'wai' that apply to status, I will refer to them as low, medium and high.
- Low - Could be to a child or bar girl
- Medium - To an adult, girlfriends mum, good friend etc
- High - This is reserved for the Monk or when addressing a symbol of Buddha
I play for a Thai pool team and one of the team owns a bar. When we play there I always address the working girls with a low wai and they in turn address me with a high wai. Over time they have developed a considerable amount of respect for me as a 'farrang' who does wai, doesn't jeer at them, act stupidly or offer them money for sex and just speaks to them as normal human beings. I reject the notion that offering a wai to a bar girl or a child for that matter is silly and would be laughed at. Delivering the correct low wai shows that you as a foreigner adhere to cultural differences and have respect for Thai people.
It's a common mistake i.e. bringing along the baggage of his own culture and trying to superimpose it on Thai culture. This is something you must get over if you are to fully understand the Thai mindset. If (and it's a big if) a bar girl or any kind of waitress/service staff initiates a wai (it should always be them that initiates the wai, not you), return it with a friendly smile, or a slight wai at the most.
As I said before, just observe and you'll soon understand how it works. You may sometimes see a lower class Thai meeting someone of a very high status or one holding a position of great power and they will make quite a fuss of giving a very respectful and deep wai and the person of status may not even return the wai. It's highly unlikely you will find yourself in such a situation. As a very general guide, you should nearly always wai people that are older than you.
In summary, as a foreigner, you don't really need to know all of the nuances of the wai, just a simple and conservative wai will suffice in most situations. It's not something to be afraid of or shy about and indeed, you will start to feel quite important as people start to greet you with a respectful wai. Don't forget though, try to learn when you should return it or at least acknowledge it, or you will appear to be disrespectful. It is a charming act that you absolutely must learn to use properly if you are to live in Thailand.
The Thai National Anthem is played daily at 08:00 HRS and 18:00 HRS on television and radio. When in any train or bus station anywhere in Thailand at these times, you will also hear the national anthem played on the dot and everybody will stop what they are doing and stand to attention, without exception. You should do the same out of respect and those around you will most certainly appreciate the gesture.
Being polite is a sign of good character wherever you are in the world but it is particularly important in Thailand. Losing your temper at a hotel reception will only serve to frustrate you further and make you look foolish to the locals. Indeed, they may even be less inclined to help you if you get angry. Raising your voice is considered ugly, counter productive and will get you nowhere. Equally, bawdy hooligans from Europe or the Americas will not make any friends in Thailand. In summary, be respectful, well mannered and downplay yourself and your country, rather than boast... this will win you respect in Thailand. If you boast, it should be to show appreciation of something someone else may have done for you.
Thais are generally a very happy and friendly people, even when they face extremes of hardship. Even when very poor, they will often make a donation at the local temple or to beggars. You should also show kindness and a degree of generosity, where it is deserved.
Thais would rather ignore ugly situations until they have gone away, or find a way to laugh about it. Show them that you are peace loving and kind.
Never underestimate the importance and respect shown to monks in Thailand. You should never touch a monk. Don't even touch their robes. Women should pay particular attention to this point. You may only touch a monk if he first extends his hand and invites you.
Never ever pass in front of someone as they are kneeling to pray at a temple.
If you give a gift in Thailand, you will be thanked and it will usually be put to one side and opened later.
Thais place a lot of importance on the way you dress to convey your status. Thailand is a rather conservative society and you should try to dress accordingly. At work, your shirt should be crisp, clean and in perfect condition.
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