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Culture Connection: How to Wai Like a Thai

TIME : 2016/2/27 15:00:23

To the casual visitor, Thailand is a tropical dream – all coconut shakes, pad thai and palm trees. The service is generally good, people seem friendly and English is widely spoken. Thailand for many is just enough Asia to be exotic while still being familiar enough to be safe and fun.

Dig a little deeper however and you being to see that though Thai culture seems mostly westernized, this is a mirage. Thai culture, like their fragrant cuisine is both subtle and strong. One of the most important and visible aspects is the ubiquitous wai or bow. Everyone form shopkeepers to Ronald McDonald is doing it.

What may seem to travelers to be a simple bow is in fact a deep and complex tradition whose use can gain you local respect or make you look like a complete farang.

The wai has a long spiritual history.The wai has a long spiritual history.
Because it can be difficult to understand where on the social pecking order you lie it is a good idea when you are starting out to wait for other people to wai you. If they wai with an “Equals Wai” than you should respond with an “Equals Wai”. If somebody wais you with an “Elder Wai” you should respond with a  “Response Wai”.

It can be difficult for many people to become comfortable with recognizing social difference, especially if you are from a culture that tries to view everyone as equal. It should be said that giving the wrong wai, whether too high or too low, is seen as very insulting. It is a loss of face for both you and the recipient of the wai. So don’t try to make a beggar feel better, for example, by giving an “Elder Wai”. At the least you will look foolish but your risk offending some people.

If you don’t feel comfortable with the practice, don’t wai. It’s perfectly ok not to wai, as a foreigner it isn’t expected. However learning the local culture will go a long way with improving your repertoire with Thais and if you are planning on making Thailand a semi-permanent home than it is a good idea to become familiar with the this important gesture.