The Thai Wai and Tourists

At school this week, we held our regular Thai Manners competition for the students. The students wore traditional Thai clothes and had to visit a number of different bases in order to show that they knew how to perform the proper respect in the correct manner. This reminded me of one of the most common questions that we get in our mailbox. That is the “Thai Wai”. How to use it and when to use it.

For those of you who don’t know yet, a Thai Wai is a prayer like gesture done by bringing your hands together at about nose level. Adults use it to greet each other and also to bid farewell. It shouldn’t be confused with the Western handshake. Personally I would only shake hands with someone I was meeting for the first time or that I haven’t seen for a long while. People “wai” each other on a daily basis. Children will “wai” their parents when they leave home to go to school. When they come home they will “wai” again. Adults arriving at work will “wai” their collegues and their bosses in the workplace.

The “wai” can also be used in other ways. For example, to say sorry. If you step on someone’s toes, you could “wai” them to ask forgiveness. You do that if you know you have done something really wrong. an alternative is to bow your head. Not as much as the Japanese do. It is more like a deep nod. Another use for the “wai” is to say “thank you”. If someone gave me a present or did a big favour that I was really grateful for, I would then “wai” them. An alternative is the bow for minor favours. For example, if you are waiting in your car to turn left and someone lets you out then you can give them a head bow. Actually, I call it the “chicken bow” as you move your head forward as you bow, much like a chicken does.

Another use of the “wai” is to show respect. If my students want to come back into the classroom after visiting the toilet, they will have to stand in the doorway, give a ‘wai” and ask permission to enter. If they want to excuse themselves, they have to do the same. Before exam time, my students like me to wish them good luck. This is a bit like giving them a blessing. To receive this they should give a “wai’ while I am blessing them. People also do this at the temple when speaking to a monk or listening to a sermon. When I have finished they will run their fingers through their hair in order to seal in the good luck.

As you have seen, there are different reasons for giving a “wai”. To make it more confusing, there are also different levels of the “wai”. You should also remember who has to “wai” first. For example, as a rule, we don’t “wai” the students at school. You certainly mustn’t “wai” a child first as this is considered bad luck for them. The only students I would “wai” are my ex-students who have come back to visit. If you want to “wai” back to a child, then you can just use the “receiving wai” which you can see in the top picture. For this you bring your hands to about chest level.

For every day “wais” I would suggest foreigners to use what I call the “lazy wai”. This is bringing your hands to your head so that the tip of your thumbs touch the base of your nose. You can use this “wai” with people of equal position or with service people. However, you should remember that you shouldn’t “wai” your servant first. To show the proper respect, you should allow them to “wai” you first. As a general rule, if an adult gives you a “wai” then please make sure you “wai” them back. However, you might see some people just giving the “chicken nod” to their servants in return.

For someone important (basically anyone older than you or your boss) you should give them the proper “wai”. To do this, bring your hands together in front of you to about chest level and then bow your head down to meet them. This is showing more respect. Women can do a little dip by bending their knees to show respect. The lower they dip the more respect they are showing. If you want to show a lot of respect, like to your mother on Mother’s Day, you can get on your knees and bow down right to her feet.

The final question is, should foreign tourists “wai” anyone? I would say that as a tourist they shouldn’t “wai” someone first. Unless of course you need to make a good impression with someone. Like I said before, if an adult “wais’ you first then you should “wai” them back. However, don’t do this back to the cashier at 7-Eleven or the supermarket. There is no need. Just smile and give the “chicken nod”. When you go to a restaurant, you will be greeted by the waitress. Again, you are only obliged to give a smile and nod. It is up to you if you want to “wai” them back. When you leave they will “wai” you again. Personally I would only “wai” them in return if we had some kind of friendly conversation during the meal.

If you decide to do a “wai” please do it in a graceful manner. It should always be done slowly and with feeling.

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