The "WAI" is the Thai customary greeting and show of respect, indicated by pressing your palms together near your chest and bowing. The wai is a unique, graceful action practiced throughout Thailand. It plays a very important part in showing respect and is central to Thai etiquette.
WHY WAI? –
1. As a foreigner, you will show and receive respect by following this customary greeting, although many Thais will also (somewhat reluctantly) accept a handshake from you.
2. For the most part Thais do not want to touch your sweaty, grubby little hands, so it's a good idea to learn how to wai. The European kiss-on-each-cheek-greeting will certainly alarm a Thai, especially if you are a man doing this to a woman who isn't your wife or girlfriend!
3. The wai can be very confusing for a foreigner, especially at large gatherings when you feel like you have been waiing, bowing and smiling a hundred times. However, the plus side is, when being wai-ed to by others you do start to feel quite important!
4. When being wai-ed to, you would be considered impolite if you didn't return or at least acknowledge the wai - something especially difficult to do when you are carrying a lot of bags or in the middle of stuffing your face when someone sneaks up on you. At the very least, you can grunt and nod. Only monks and royalty do not need to return a wai.
WHEN TO WAI -- As well as being a greeting, a wai is a show of respect.
1. You will wai when receiving a gift from a superior, as a sign of thanks. Wai first before you reach for the gift (and never ever open it in front of them!).
2. While listening to a Buddhist sermon, it is also customary to hold a wai during the entire programme.
3. It can be difficult to determine when you should wai or when someone should wai you. As a foreigner, it's just easiest to wai important people as soon as possible. If someone is going to wai you first, they probably already beat you to it.
4. The person of higher social status will be wai-ed to. You have only a few seconds to size up someone you meet and determine this but if you are unsure, I advise that you wai first to be on the safer side.
WHEN NOT TO WAI -- One easy determination is age.
1. Don’t wai the kids!
2. If someone is older than you, then you should wai them unless they are someone whom you employ, such as a housekeeper.
3. Never wai to anyone who you are paying for service, such as waiters, tailors, vendors, shopkeepers or taxi drivers. It could be misinterpreted as mocking or embarrassing them.
4. You also wouldn't wai your peers and friends. Alternatively, when leaving a party or other such gathering, you should wai everyone, as this is the polite way to excuse yourself from the festivities.
KINDS OF WAI’S - If all that wasn't confusing enough, there are different kinds of wais!
1. The normal wai is with your hands pressed together at about chest level, presenting a slight bow with your body.
2. The wai to a superior is with the tips of your fingers at nose level, still bowing with your body.
3. To convey the most respect and gratitude, you will wai with your fingertips at mouth level and present a deeper and longer bow.
-- From One Stop Chiang Mai website.
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