First timers coming to Thailand will be faced with a dilemma at the very, very latest when they get to their hotel: How to do the Wai in Thailand?
This traditional greeting will probably be performed by the reception staff checking you in, and for those unfamiliar with this new kind of greeting, it can feel extremely awkward. “Are they actually bowing to me?” “What do I do?” “How can I react in a respectful and meaningful way?”. In this article, we will explain a little about the traditional Thai greeting, the proper way to Wai and when- and how to say “sawasdee krab” (Or, for that matter, “Sawasdee ka” if you are female).
NOT ABOUT OBEDIENCE – IT’S ABOUT RESPECT
In the “West”, most people are not accustomed to any gesture of obedience, which is not what the Wai is about at all. Very much like our handshake, the Wai is the local way to greet someone. And like our handshake, a Wai can have a different meaning in different situations. There is not just the greeting, but also a sign of respect or to show reconciliation after a dispute or as a profound apology.
WHERE AM I GOING TO PUT MY HANDS?
That is a great question! The Wai, apart from being a greeting, also serves as a way to establish your standing in a social hierarchy. Where you place your hands in relation to your face determines how high you think of the person you are greeting. Let’s look at the 4 different ways of doing the Wai and what situations you would use them in.
THE SOCIAL WAI
The social Wai is the version of the Wai used to greet people that are slightly older than you, or deemed of a slightly higher standing. Your older sister, neighbour or an older friend.
Fold your hands together and bring them upward until your thumbs reach the height of your chin.
THE FORMAL WAI
A formal Wai is a Wai performed by service staff towards guests, or by employees towards their boss (in a formal setting). Another example could be when you greet your grandparents or someone important in the community, like the mayor of the village or a highly ranked government official. Your thumbs should be touching the tip of your nose.
This Wai is usually done more slowly than the social Wai as to show more respect to the person you are addressing.
THE WAI FOR MONKS
Monks are to be greeted with your hands together, at the level of your eyebrows. It’s pretty much the biggest sign of respect you can give someone, and as such the bow should be accordingly deep as well. Keep in mind that this type of Wai is reserved for very few situations, and misuse of this gesture in an inappropriate situation will be deemed offensive. A Thai’s first reaction will probably be “Is that foreigner making fun of me?!”, so go easy on the “respect” that you put in your Wai.
Pro tip! In case you want to show respect to the person you are greeting, fold your hands in the appropriate position and then bow your head forward until your hands and head are aligned where you want them to be. The hands should be “in position” before moving your head. Bring your head towards your hands. Don’t bring your hands towards your head.
ACCEPTING THE WAI
A Wai is always to be returned or accepted by placing your hands in front of your chest. It might be difficult to do this if you are carrying something in your hands. In that case a nod is also accepted. You might even see people accepting a Wai by only placing their one free hand in the right position.
Pro Tip! Initiating a Wai to service staff in a hotel or restaurant is a typical rookie mistake and even though foreigners mean well, it is weird and might make the staff feel awkward.
WHAT IS IT THEY’RE SAYING WHEN THEY DO IT?
A Wai never comes alone, as a softly spoken “Sawasdee Krab” usually comes with the bow. This is the traditional Thai greeting and since there is a male- and female version, knowing which is which makes you the better tourist. If you are a man, you will say “Sawasdee krab”. The 2nd S is hardly pronounced though, so think of it as “Sawasdee krab”, and you are doing fine. Women however should say “Sawadee ka”, as the different ending identifies you as a female.
YOUR ELDERS AND YOUNGSTERS
You will often see Thai parents letting their youngest one greet a new person with a Wai. It is one of the very first things Thai teach children and it is considered a form of respect towards their elders. As such, it is supercute when a toddler gives you a Wai, along with a round-cheeked “Sawasdee krab”, and even cuter if you accept the Wai.
Likewise, should you be introduced to someone who is obviously older than you are, and you want to make everyone understand you are comfortable with Thai customs, an appropriate Wai is the best thing by far you can do in this situation.
Pro tip! Thai will address their older friends with “Pee” in front of their names. This goes as far as storing their friends name as “Pee Noi”, “Pee Miew” and “Pee Simon” in their phone instead of just their names. Younger people and children will be addressed as “Nong Chin” and “Nong Tom”. Oddly enough, I have never seen someone store a person’s name in a telephone with that preposition.
Customers, elders or people you want to show respect to will be called “Khun…” as in “Khun Nicky” or “Khun Boi”. This goes for people that are older or younger than you. You can compare this to “Mrs Bradshaw” or “Mister Fidler”
Note that Thai will always use the first name, even if it is in a polite setting.
I like to imagine that all Thai remember their very first high-five as an unusual and slightly awkward moment. In similar fashion, most foreigners will experience their first attempts at the Wai as unnatural. Don’t worry about getting it right immediately. As with every new thing you learn, you will make mistakes.
A short assessment of the situation you are in, followed by the appropriate amount of respect you’re putting into your Thai greeting is going to go a long way. Locals will notice your efforts to learn their customs and will definitely appreciate them.
What are your experiences with the Wai? Have you got any tips for newcomers or do you have a funny story to share? Tell us about your Wai experiences the comment section below.