The Way of the Wai Posted by palmisano on Jun 2, 2011 in Beginner, Culture, Intermediate, Travel
I’m will assume that my readers know what the Wai ไหว้ is, the motion where you clasp your hands in a praying motion to say ‘hello’. At least, that’s what you are told when you first come to Thailand. However that’s very much an oversimplification, to the point of being almost completely wrong. It’s actual a method of paying respect, not to say hello.
When I have farang friends visit me in Thailand, they often ask about the Wai. I simply tell them ‘don’t do it’. It’s very complicated with lots of subtleness about it and it’s better to just not try. That is of course if you’re visiting for only a week or two – but if you are making Thailand a second home then this article is just for you.
When should you wai? It has a *lot* to do with the situation.
1) Always wai to a person who is much older than you, especially when you are introduced to him/her – for example your girlfriends parents, or your friends grandparents, etc.
2) Never wai to someone younger than you, ever, unless they wai to you first. It’s like you’re wishing them bad luck.
3) If someone wai’s to you, it’s rude to not wai back. And expect someone to not wai you back sooner or later. Just pretend it didn’t happen and smile . . . and maybe subtly point your feet at them.
4) The wai shows superiority by age, not by employment status. If your boss is much younger than you, he is expected to wai you first.
5) Don’t wai with friends, unless they do it first. That’s just weird.
6) Don’t wai servants or people serving you as a customer (like the bell hop at a hotel), or other random people you see on the street. In the West, would you shake hands with the waiter at a restaurant? – it’s just weird. Don’t do that.
7) Always wai monks, and people of much higher social positions than you (up to your own judgment).
Now, the wai isn’t just putting your hands in a praying position – it involves a lot of subtle motions with it. For example, women should slightly step back with the right foot when doing the wai. Both men and women should do a very slight head nod as well.
The height of your hands determines the level of respect you’re giving. Your wai should be chest level with children, for example. Now when you wai, notice your thumbs are coming together. When wai’ing an elder, the thumbs should be the level of your chin. When wai’ing a monk (ไหว้พระ wai pra), the thumbs go to your nose. When wai’ing a head monk or the King, the thumbs go to the brow above your nose.