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The Thai Wai


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.

See also: Thai Culture Tips

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