| The Thai wai
The Thai sign of salutation or mutual recognition is to raise both hands, joined palm to palm, lightly touching the body somewhere between the face and chest. The higher the hands are raised, the greater is the respect and courtesy conveyed. The person who is inferior in age or rank in the social scale of precedence initiates such a movement of the hands and the person receiving the salutation immediately reciprocates.
The Thai salutation may be rendered while sitting, standing, walking or even lying in bed during illness. In rendering a salutation while standing to a most respected person who is sitting, one, as a decorum of good manners, will stoop or bend the head at the same time. When taking leave, the departing person will offer a salute in the same manner, followed in turn by a corresponding salute from the other person. Such a salutation is called a wai in Thai, and is often seen in Thai society.
When to Wai :
The question of when to wai and how to wai is learnt from the earliest days of childhood. It comes naturally for a Thai, but is a problem for the visitor. A wai is not only reserved for greetings and farewells, but for a manner of other reasons too. When a person is receiving anything from a senior, he will raise his hands and wai to the giver as a polite gesture of thanks before or after receiving it as circumstances demand.
When someone is asking someone’s pardon or favour, one usually makes such a wai too. During a Buddhist sermon, monks and lay persons will sit respectfully with their hands to chest level in a wai. A group of students passing their teacher at school will come smartly to attention and wai and bow with almost military precision. On buses and in taxis passengers wai sacred places and revered statues of past kings and they pass by. Even the drives quickly take their hands off the wheel for a quick wai to shrine put up to protect road users.
Who to wai :
The best advice to foreigners in Thailand is that unless you receive a wai first, stick to the handshake with men and a polite smile with women. As you spend more time in Thailand, you will soon learn some important rules..
- Do not wai servants, laborers, children and other people of an obviously lower social status than yours.
- If you receive a high wai, reply with a lower wai.
- The safest people to wai are monks and the very old
(but not if they are your servants or street vendors)
- The appropriate deferent position is shown by lowering
the head and body, not by raising the hands.
- Remember, a wai is not a “Hello”. Overuse would devalue its meaning.
How to Wai :
Children are taught at a very early age how to show proper respect to their seniors. They are drilled both at home and at school to perform the wai correctly. One final thing to remember is that the raising of the hands to wai and the lowering of the hands to a normal position should never be done with a sharp movement but rather in a more or less graceful manner such as in slow motion.