Don’t Touch the Head or Point With the Feet
Thais place importance and significance to different parts of the body. The head is seen as the most spiritual part of the body and you should never touch a person’s head. This goes for children too — an affectionate ruffling of the hair could cause offence to Thai parents. You may see a Thai adult give a child a rub on the head, but I would refrain from this unless the child is in your extended family and a bond has already been established.
The feet are seen as dirty and symbolically low. You should never touch somebody with your foot, sit with the sole of your foot pointing outwards, or point your foot at a person or a Buddha image. Even crossing your legs can cause some people to inwardly wince. This means no holding doors open with your feet, pushing your bag along with your feet, or otherwise using your feet in place of your hands. Certainly don’t put your feet near someone’s head!
There are many times when you should take off your shoes too.
Shoes must be taken off upon entering someone’s home. No matter how lowly or grand the home is, take them off. Shoes walk outside and pick up all manner of dirt, which people don’t want in the home – especially considering that Thais often eat sitting on the floor.
Touching & Walking
Thais are not overly touchy-feely in general. It’s not so common to see Thais holding hands, hugging, or otherwise touching in public, and kissing and other public displays of affection are a big no.
Thais value quiet and low-impact steps, a behavior especially trained among young Thai girls who are taught to put their bodyweight on their toes and walk slowly. Traditionally, this method could have been important to help make wooden and bamboo floors last longer and while today it is not as scrutinized, humble and peaceful steps are valued among members of Thai society.
Although it’s preferable to walk around two people, rather than cutting between them, if you must pass between two people you should stoop slightly so that your head is lower than theirs. This acknowledges the interruption and is a subtle apology without speaking. Sometimes this will be accompanied by a vocal “excuse me” or “sorry”. The same applies if you walk past a person and block out their vision for a split second. It is also polite for Thais to stoop slightly when walking past somebody they know has a higher social status than them.
When presenting or receiving things, like money, gifts, food, or business cards, it is respectful to exchange items using two hands, especially with someone you’ve just met or is older than you. In general, the left hand is considered unclean – traditionally the left was the “wiping hand” before the days of bum gums and toilet paper – and is not used to eat, receive gifts, or shake hands.
Pointing solely with the index finger, common among Western cultures, is used only during an argument in Thailand. There is actually a superstition that if a person points at a rainbow, their finger will fall off! Pointing is reserved for addressing inanimate objects. and even then is it more polite to use the whole hand, with all fingers outstretched, to point. To indicate another person, Thais will lift their chin slightly in their direction.
To beckon somebody, the palm should be face down with all fingers extended and the action from the wrist. Termed the kwang myy, this Thai gesture for “come here” is actually similar to what Westerners would use for “go away,” with an open palm angled down, moving upward and downward repeatedly.
The “OK” Sign
A circled thumb and index finger, often a sign for “okay” or “I understand” in many cultures, can actually convey a sexual connotation in Thailand. While the gesture has more or less evolved to its more international meaning among Thai adults, children will still use it to tease one another or get away with non-verbally communicating something rude behind their parents or teachers’ back.
Traditionally in Thailand, giving someone the “thumbs up” gesture is similar to giving them the middle finger – ultimately derogatory in nature. While adults in Thailand today have adopted its more international meaning of approval or a job well done, it’s still common for kids to exchange the gesture during a childish argument.
Hunger Games Salute
A more recent development in Thai non-verbal culture, Thailand’s military rulers are seeking to police the use of a three-fingered salute borrowed from the popular young adult series The Hunger Games. In the book and movie series, the salute is a symbol of rebellion against totalitarian rule, and Thai authorities had monitored its use as a symbol uniting anti-coup protesters before ultimately banning the gesture. Along with the three-fingered salute, any political gathering of more than five people is strictly prohibited.
Tossing any item – especially money – is considered extremely rude. Thais expect others to take the time to respectfully hand items over properly, either with both hands or with the right hand. Money should be unfolded when paying someone.
Thai money itself denotes a certain amount of respect. Thailand enforces the world’s strictest lèse-majesté laws, which carry harsh penalties for any open disrespect toward the King or any member of the royal family – even his dog. As the King’s image appears on all Thai baht, tossing or stepping on money is viewed as extremely disrespectful and any accident should include a quick khaaw tho, or “pardon me!”