The wai (ไหว้, pronounced like the English word “why”) is a gesture that you will encounter almost immediately upon arrival in Thailand. An integral part of Thai etiquette, it consists of a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion, or pressing your palms together at chest or nose level and bowing your head slightly. The wai denotes respect (or reverence when performed in front of a Buddha image), and can be used to express a hello, goodbye or as a way to express gratitude or to apologize. Part of Thai etiquette, as soon as Thai children can put their hands together they are taught the importance of this traditional Thai gesture.
The wai gesture originated in Buddhism and has similar origins as namaste in Hinduism. Dating back to the 12th century, history suggests that the wai may have come about as a way of greeting to show that an individual is not carrying any weapons and comes in peace. It was basically a yogic posture of the palms and signifies the equal meeting of the two palms. It means that the other party is treated as an equal human being.
The word often spoken with the wai as a greeting or farewell is “sawatdi” (สวัสดี, sometimes romanized as sawasdee). This verbal greeting is usually followed by “kha” when spoken by a female and by “khrap” when spoken by a male person. The word sawatdi was coined in the mid-1930s by Phraya Upakit Silapasan of Chulalongkorn University. Derived from the Sanskrit svasti (स्वस्ति meaning ‘well-being’), it had previously been used in Thai only as a formulaic opening to inscriptions. The strongly nationalist government of Plaek Phibunsongkhram in the early–1940s promoted its use in the government bureaucracy as well as the wider populace as part of a wider set of cultural edicts to modernize Thailand.
Waiing remains to this day an extremely important part of social behavior among Thais, who are very sensitive to their self-perceived standing in society. It is also frequently used as an accompaniment to an apology, sometimes even serving as a “get out of jail free card”. Many Thais will also wai when they pass spirit houses, temples, shrines, or anything in regards to the monarchy — for example, a picture of the king. Thais will wai Buddhist monks but monks are not expected to return the greeting.
How to Wai
First, put your palms together in front of your chest so that each finger is touching its counterpart. Then, bring your hands to touch the middle of your chest and slightly bow your head so that your index fingers touch your nose; this is the basic wai, and it most resembles a slight bow. Instead of bending at the hips, this greeting only requires people to slightly bend their necks, almost like a nod. Men and women also wai a bit differently, in that women bend their knees and men only slightly bend their heads.
Types of Wai
The Thai Ministry of Culture has denoted three levels of wai: the first is the standard peer-to-peer greeting, a second for parents, older people, and other social superiors; and the last one is for Buddhism, monks, and royalty.
The first wai, as described above, is the most common and relaxed version of this greeting. You can use this wai for friends and people who are the same age as you or those who have the same social status as you. This is a quick action, similar to a ‘hi’ rather than some drawn-out greeting.
The second, and a bit more formal, way to wai is to bring your thumbs to the tip of your nose and your index fingers to your forehead. This is used when greeting older people or those you deem to have a higher standing in some way. Again, this is usually a fairly swift movement, although a slower style is often used to give the gesture greater meaning and gravitas.
The third and most respectful way to wai is to lower your head until your thumbs are in-between your eyebrows with your palms at your chest. You should also bow slightly. This wai is used for the royal family, monks, and people who are greatly respected.
There is one final gesture reserved for some Buddha images and high-ranking monks, as well as the royal family. It involves prostration, and is only used for religious or royal contexts. You will see this wai in effect throughout any televised public ceremonies, particularly ones involving members of the royal family. I was quite surprised at my current school when some of my kindergarten classes waied me in this manner!
When Not to Wai
It is custom not to wai to children, even if you are greeted with the cutest wai from them. Instead, you can give a quick nod of the head, a warm smile or simply pull your hands up to the starting position and then drop them without moving the fingers up towards the face as a sign of acceptance.
This is also the case when dealing with anyone in the service industry, This includes staff in restaurants, bars, spas, cinemas, as well as security guards, taxi drivers, and anyone who is in a kind of subordinate position where they are providing a service. This stands regardless of their age. Whilst this may feel a little strange to many non-Thais, and almost rude not to return the favor, inappropriate use can make others feel a little bemused.
One important thing to know about waiing is that it is always the social inferior (whether by age, rank, or standing) who initiates it. This means that as a (paying) visitor it is unlikely that you will meet any situation where you would be expected to wai first.
It may sound like a license for bad behavior (it’s not), but as a foreigner you’re largely excluded from Thailand’s most nuanced courtesies. Due to the subtle levels and nuances used in the gesture, it’s a safe bet to say you’re probably not going to get it right.
You will find some Thai people have different ideas about foreigners and waiing — but that has to be more their issue rather than yours. Some people will tell you it is not necessary for foreigners to wai, and this is the majority.
However, you may encounter some folk who will tell you this is Thailand and if you don’t do it then it means you don’t respect them. Certainly, respect seems to be a recurring major issue in this country. This way of thinking exists among the minority of Thais in the city, but it could be somewhat different when venturing to largely rural areas etc., where customs have changed little in the last 50 years or so.
If you are uncertain what to do when someone wais to you, return the gesture with a kind smile and an acknowledging nod, and this should suffice for the majority of people visiting the country.
Just being seen to try and show respect will often be appreciated even if you don’t always get it quite right. Many Thais really consider their culture unique and hence inaccessible by anyone raised outside of it. Your status as a non-Thai gives you plenty of room for error without too much judgement, but try not to overdo it.
Of course, if you are greeted with a firmly outstretched hand then politely shake hands instead!