To Wai or Not to Wai...

Written by Wit   

Monday, 08 August 2005

..that is the question.

Searching through my mental backlog of blog ideas I remembered this was one of the first I thought to write for Thai-blogs I just never got around to it ;)

The Wai is one of the most famous of symbols that people recognize as being 'Thailand.' To do it right is almost an art form and something that many Thais take great care to express properly and sincerely because not only is it ingrained from an early age into Thai culture it also comes from the heart and it is literally a true measure of how much respect to show someone.

From the foreigners perspective if you want to socialize in Thailand so Thai people will a) be somewhat impressed and b) prove not all farangs are uncultured bores only into Thai women (or men if the case may be) and ruining Thai culture with our western ways then take the time to learn some Ways of the Wai. Sounds cool doesn't it?

At first glance the 'Wai' looks simple and easy however to understand the rules to a proper Wai you soon realize this is no simple slick Thai style 'handshake' or even an exotic-cool, a la Vulcan 'Live Long and Prosper', salutation. Oh no. But I'll get on with the rules a little later, for now I'll get on with the jokes. ;)

For me making a proper Wai was almost, if not more, nerve wrecking in the beginning learning Thai culture than trying to say maai mai mai mai mai ไม้ใหมไม่ไหม้มยั้ (a Thai tongue twister meaning "New wood doesn't burn, does it?") in all the right tones while learning to speak Thai !

To make things more interesting I'll let you in on a secret. However you might imagine me to be like according to my blog personality in real life I am very much the opposite. Not shy but reserved and quiet most of the time preferring the sidelines and keeping to myself in crowds rather than draw a lot of attention. Hence my ingrained American reluctance to do something publicly that would look odd to any one other than a Thai.

But I do have my moments where you put me in the spotlight especially if I know what I am doing, or blogging about, and I can take center stage no problem! In fact I hope this will be a good skill for pursuing a future teaching career in Thailand when I finally break orbit from Planet America.

If you ever watch a Thai perform the wai it is amazing the skill they have. They can gracefully and respectfully wai carrying anything! Imagine trying to see an American do that with a mobile phone in one hand, Starbucks coffee in the other and always rushing somewhere because we Americans are always late for everything. In the beginning making my first attempts to wai I was doing good just to manage a wai with two bare empty hands but I felt so awkward and self conscious! Yes even with something as simple as pressing your palms together in greeting I would do it so fast my hands made a clapping sound and it looked like I was trying a strange new way to swat mozzies! With practice though eventually I got more smooth and graceful at it and my bathroom mirror, kitchen refrigerator and the mailbox down the street on the corner have never been shown so much respect! ;)

However trying this out on actual real people was not as easy. At the museum where I used to work there is a lady who is Thai and she was older than me so every morning when I walked into work I would say a fast Sawasdee Krab! nervouslly give her one of my shotgun blast wais and quickly run away, kind of a 'hit and run' just to get into habit of doing it.

At first she would give a startled (maybe stunned is a better word) wai back like she had been caught napping. She had been living in the US the past 16 years so that might be true. I got over my nervousness eventually but this was serious business! The last thing I wanted was to appear to be mocking someone Thai since this is not Thailand and you don't see this kind of formality everyday. I had to be sure I was comfortable and doing this right. I remember now there was one time at the museum when I met some tourists from Thailand and they were my customers. A young couple that I chatted with for a bit and when they started to leave the guy sat his packages down and smartly gave me a wai. I was surpised since in my status I was to him a store clerk but still it was touching.

Sometimes though it gets complicated. In Thai class at the temple I always bow deeply with my head lowered and wai with the tips of my thumbs almost touching my eyebrows. Each year we have a summer school where young boys here ordain as monks for a few weeks. When they are at the temple I wai because they are real monks, even if temporarily, and I bow lower because I am so tall even though as an adult under any other circumstance I would not wai a child.

One time I wai'd the monks and one of the Thai ladies that helps out around the temple. Her son Billy was there too taking the Thai class. Billy was not a monk and almost half my age so I didn't wai him but gave a 'Wassup dude.' I thought I knew the rules and did everything right.

His mom immediately asked why I didn't wai him as well! Uh, well..according the the Wai Code Book, Paragraph 14, sub heading 9 ...... Erm, oh forget it, instead of making a scene I quickly wai'd, mumbled an 'excuse me' then slunk back to my corner ;)

The rule to understand is not how to Wai but to whom. For example try this brain teaser on for size..

A young foreigner meets a Thai girl for lunch. She does the wai and he returns the gesture. To go back to his hotel he hails a taxi. The older driver, upon receiving a good tip, wais him, then drives off. The foreigner waves his hand to mean 'never mind.'

Some days later, the girl invites him to her house. An old man walks out and she introduces her father, whom he instantly recognizes as none other than the taxi driver.

Now, should the westerner, say a manager of some firm (status), recognizing the taxi-driver father (elder person), wai first? Or not wai but mumble something in English as a detour? Or merely extend a hand for a handshake? Do nothing to see what happens first?

Before he can sort himself out, a woman looking younger than he walks in and his girlfriend introduces the woman as her stepmother. Should he wai this younger woman first or wait for her to do it first? An elderly woman now comes in and it turns out she is the chief servant. He becomes confused. Wai quickly?

Murmur something in French or Chinese? Over to you.

This is actually from the book "Do's & Don't in Thailand" available at the online book shop in Richards school. There are numerous books on Thai customs but this book is great. It's written in an easy to read style but straight forward and also quite funny!

So your curious to see how to try one of these? well for starters here are the basics. First up is the

Rules of Usage

The most common use for the Wai is in greeting someone. You clasp your hands together in front of you and lower your head while smiling and saying 'Sawasdee' for hello. Gentlemen can bow slightly at the waist while Ladies may make a small courtsey.

The Wai is also meant as a sign of respect and is often shown by a person of lower status wai-ing to someone of higher status first. Illustrated by the -

Positions of the Wai

The person of lower status would also bend lower, lower his head more and clasp his hands higher. You will usually guess the status of two people that meet by watching the way they wai each other. The lower the head/body, the higher the hands, the higher the status and respect offered. L x HB x HH = W = S Taking notes so far?

It is also protocol that if someone wais you, you don't have to return the wai but it is very disrespectful to not acknowleadge it. A smile or a nod will usually suffice. Monks and Thai Royality will never return a wai but a King will wai a monk, such are the rules of status in Thailand.

When to Wai

When will always depend on 'who' as in who has the higher status or seniority. If your lower in status then you wai first. Most tourist and farang generally would not have to worry about wai-ing first out of general respect from Thai people for your status as a foreigner plus we aren't expected to understand Thai ways.

However you do go a long way by wai-ing with the proper respect to monks, members of the Royal Family and elder persons. Be careful you don't go in the wrong way by wai-ing to children, service people like cooks, clerks, taxi drivers or anyone obviously younger than yourself. People and friends of equal status may only wai each other when coming or going.

Origins of Wai

The strongest cousin to the wai is the Indian Namaste which means welcome, relax and enjoy. Namaste, an Indian word is the highest form of greeting considered an honorable tribute from one being to another. The Chinese way of greeting, or 'Koh Kung', also uses the same handlike gesture. It's pretty obvious that Thai culture not only shares this tradition but was influenced a great deal by it. I've always thought Thailand was a unique blend of East and West (Asia that is - although technically India is South Asia but the East/West bit sounds more intriging right?)

Plus the Buddha is often shown in a similar pose with his hands clasped together as a sign of peace. Whether the origin of the wai comes from India, or China or perhaps sprung completely on it's own from the people that tamed Thailand eons ago the fact is it is Thailand. It's the heart and warmth of the Thai people and it is with grace, sincerity and beauty that it is offered. Makes the handshake look kinda primitive afterwards doesn't it?

So even if you can't speak a lick of Thai to save your life if you know the rules, always smile and can master a good Wai from all I've heard so far you'll go over like gangbusters and if you won't take it from me ask someone whose actually been to Thailand!

Till next time ....


This article was originally published at thai-blogs.com.

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