In Thailand, Wai is not just a gesture to greet people, it is also a sign of respect.
It is a gesture that is used to demonstrate the importance of Thai values and attitudes. Some believe that is one of the most important social customs of Thailand.
In Thai society the use of Wai publicly demonstrates the superiority rule. When two people meet, the socially “inferior” person takes on an inferior position while the socially “superior” person assumes a physically superior position.
Types of Wai
There are different types of Wai to show respect in different degrees. While greeting a person in Thailand using a Wai, one usually joins the palms together. However, the degree of respect comes from bowing of the head. The lower the head is bowed, the greater the respect.
If the Wai is done with the hands close to the body with the fingertips reaching the neck level but not above the chin, it means that the greeting is either between equals or strangers who are still not aware of each others social positions.
- A socially superior person will return the greeting to socially inferior person by joining the hands and keeping them close to the body with the fingertips reaching the neck level. The head will be kept either straight or slightly inclined.
- If the head is bowed and the fingertips are just above the tip of the nose, it means that the socially inferior person is showing respect to a socially superior person.
- When one lowers the forehead to the base of the thumbs and the body is also bent at the waist, it means that the respect is being accorded to the King, monks, temples, spirit houses and statues.
In Thailand, the Wai is used to greet people, thank them and also to say goodbye. For an outsider, it can be very confusing. Therefore, if you are visiting Thailand, the best advice you can get is to Wai when someone else Wais you, or else you can smile and nod your head.
When bowing to someone of higher social status, a deeper, longer bow indicates respect. Conversely, a small head nod is casual and informal. However, most Japanese do not expect foreigners to know proper bowing rules and so a nod of the head is usually sufficient.
It is also common to bow to express thanks, to apologize, to make a request or to ask someone a favor.
Shaking hands is uncommon among the Japanese, but again, exceptions are made for foreigners.