Thai Body Language, Part 1 Posted by palmisano on May 25, 2011 in Culture
I remember my first trip to Thailand. I traveled with Thai friends, but I didn’t speak any of the language so I hadn’t a clue to what they were talking about. (I suspect it was about me!)
But like watching a foreign film, you can somewhat guess what’s going on by just knowing the context, facial expressions, tone of voice, and general body language. But just like spoken language, body language isn’t universal. I repeat: Thai body language doesn’t always match western body language.
Keep in mind that as you read this, it’s being written from the perspective of American body language.
Waving has the same meaning in Thailand, but it isn’t very common. You’re more likely to see it among the younger crowd that is slowly adopting ‘western’ culture. It’s perfectly fine waving to your friend, although it might come off as a bit strange to some people. There is however a caveat in that waving is considered informal, ie don’t do it to people much older than you or of higher social status. Anything but a wai to them is rude. It reminds me once when a car stopped to let me cross the street. I waved as a gesture of ‘thanks’. Only later I realized the mistake, and wondered how I got out alive =P
Lowering your head shows respect
Have you ever gone to a Thai temple and noticed people bent over slightly when walking past monks? Ever see two adults talking, and then some children slightly bowed down as they walked passed? It’s a gesture of showing respect, and apologizing for disturbing the elders.
Shrugging shoulders is meaningless
In western culture, if someone asks you something and you shrug your shoulders, it means ‘I don’t know’. How do you say ‘apocalypse’ in the Thai language? *shrugs shoulders*
In Thailand, shrugging shoulders is meaningless. I can’t count the times I’ve shrugged my shoulders to be met with the why-did-you-do-that-awkward-body-poise-at-me look. To this day I still do it, not intentionally, but just because I can’t control the natural habit. The Thai way to ‘shrug shoulders’ is by shaking the head as if to say ‘no’, but to do it slowly and with a somewhat blank stare. You can also make a slight humming sound while doing it.
Raising an eyebrow
Another habit I can’t seem to break is raising just one eyebrow when someone says something that perplexes me. In western culture, raising just one eyebrow is almost like saying ‘huh?’ I don’t know if all Thais feel this way, but a Thai friend of mine would get angry (in a bad way) every time I did it, insisting it’s the look you give to dogs and people you despise. Sorry!!! The funny thing is, when she told me that, I immediately did it again because I was like, ‘huh?’
Touching the head
You’ve probably read all those do’s and don’ts lists about Thailand, and saw ‘Do not touch the head’ in the list. Well, guess what, Thais break this rule. I was surprised the first time I saw it, like the first time I saw a monk smoking a cigarette. Thai comedy for years would show people hitting each other in the head non-stop – they thought it was funny. Haha I hit you in the head it’s sooooo funny! It’s like watching the Three Stooges, really. If you want to annoy (and maybe piss off) your friend, rub his hair in – but make sure you are good friends with that person first. It’s funny, from a Thai perspective . . .