Thai Body Language

The traditional Thai greeting is known as the wai. In English we might compare it to the action of praying. The hands are placed together with fingers tips touching to form a cup-like shape which should resemble the profile of a lotus flower. They are then brought up towards the face. As the tips of the index fingers near the nose the head should be bowed to bring the tip of the fingers and nose together. This is a standard wai.

The wai is used as a greeting as well as to say goodbye, to say sorry, to show gratitude and generally as a sign of respect.
 

 

 

Who should wai and when?

Generally speaking the person of lower age should wai their seniors first. The senior will then return the wai with either a nod or a wai from the chest. When wai-ing someone older than you, or of higher status, you should always lower your head. If you want to wai a child or need to return a child wai’s, you can wai at a level just above the tummy. If a child wai’s you first it is not necessary to wai in return but it is nice to let the child know that their respect was appreciated by offering a small nod in their direction. Likewise, and this is where farang (a colloquial term for Western people meaning guava) often end up looking a little strange to Thai people, if a person who is subordinate to you, say waiting staff, wai’s you, there is no need to wai back. This is because it is the job of that person to serve you. We know it sounds harsh but this normal in Thai society. If you wish to wai anyway you may do so but a wai at chest level will suffice, as would a simple nod of the head in acknowledgement.

Close friends will not often wai each other as a greeting especially if they are of the same generation although exceptions are made for giving thanks and apologising.

Do wai if…
…the person you are greeting is older than you
…the person that wai-ed you is older than you
…the person that wai-ed you is of higher status than you
…you are not sure if the other person is of higher status or your senior (better to be safe than sorry!)
…you did something which could upset someone
…you receive a gift or someone treats you particularly well
…you say goodbye to someone

Don’t necessarily wai if…
…a child or someone much younger wai’s you
…a waiter or shop assistant wai’s you
...you are greeting someone who is of the same or a similar age to you
...you are greeting a person who is of equal status to you
…someone wai’s you as an apology

While in Thailand you become accustomed as to what level of wai you should offer to people and when you should use them. Don’t feel embarrassed to make mistakes as this is only natural. Thai people will always appreciate your effort to engage with their culture and when you get it wrong it will more likely entertain than offend!

 

Paying respect to monks, Buddha images and Royalty:

The deepest and most respectful form of the wai is known as the “graab”. This involves kneeling on the floor and giving a wai from the forehead, leading to prostrating the body until the forehead makes contact with the ground. At the same time as lowering the head the palms should be bought down to be flat on the ground just before the knees. This for of the wai is reserved for paying respect to the Buddha, monks and Royalty. It is unlikely that a foreigner would often need to graab outside of a temple setting.

 

This video demonstrates the graab very well even if you don't understand Thai:

 

Importance of the Head:

The head is regarded as the most sacred part of the body in Thai culture. This is where one’s spirit resides. As such you should try your best not to touch a Thai person on the head. As tempting as it may be to ruffle the hair of a cute Thai child, hold back! Only if you are extremely close to the person should you ever touch a Thai’s head.

You may notice Thai people dipping their head when crossing someone’s path. The intention is to lower the head below that of the other person. This is a mark of respect which can be seen in practise very often in everyday life.

At the opposite end of the respect level are the feet. As the lowest part of the body physically, feet are held in equally low regard in Thai culture. In former times the feet were notoriously hard to keep clean in the hot and dusty Thai environment and the view of feet has not changed. While it may be normal for Westerners to point with their feet, close doors, move obstacles or change the setting of a floor fan remember not to do it in Thailand, at least not in public!

As a side note it is important that feet and heads don’t come into contact, in addition to this a Thai would never use a pillow to warm one’s feet or to sit on as this is a place for the all-important head to rest.

Pointing with feet is out of the question and pointing with a finger is equally disrespectful! If you need to point something out in Thailand use an up-turned, outstretched palm instead to gesture towards the object or person. It’s must less intrusive than a pointy finger! Equally when calling an individual to see something or hailing a cab, rather than a school-mistress style curl of the finger Thai’s use a kind of downward waving of the hand, a bit like a cat pawing a piece of string.

An alternative method of pointing, which is particularly Thai, is pointing with the lips or chin. Using pursed lips to indicate which table should be served next may look odd to the outsider but is perfectly normal for the Thai’s. If you can’t get used to that a flick of the chin towards the object you wish to point out may prove more confortable.

 

Respect of Inanimate Objects:

High levels of etiquette relating to the body also extend to the treatment of everyday objects in Thailand. You should not use your feet or finger to point at anything, not just people. If there is an object in your path you should never step over it. This is seen as very bad etiquette, even more so if the object happens to be a book, money, food or a bag.

Books:

Books are highly respected as they are a source of knowledge. Their content may also refer to any number of highly revered subjects or objects for example religion and monarchy. They should be well cared for, kept off the ground (away from the feet) and never stepped over.

Money:

Money is not only highly revered for its face value but also because it features the image of His Majesty the King of Thailand. The Thai Monarchy, particularly the current King, is one of the most revered in the modern world. The fact that the face of the King appears on money means that it should never be on the ground or anywhere near to close contact with the feet. It should not be damaged and should be kept as clean as possible.

Like books, money should not be stepped across, as this is akin to stepping over the head of the King himself… so, if you are in a shop in Thailand and someone drops a coin don’t stamp your foot on top of it to stop it rolling.

Food:

Thai culture seems to respect food to a particularly high degree. Perhaps this is because of the rules regarding food that must be followed by Buddhist monks, or just because Thailand has developed such a food-orientated culture, either way Thai people recognise that food is key to sustaining life and must be treated accordingly.

Wasting rice is avoided at all costs and other food products are held in high regard. As such food also should not be stepped across or treated disrespectfully.

Bags:

Thai schools need the double the amount of chairs to pupils because keeping bags on the floor is bad practise... if left on the floor bags will get stepped over and given that the contents of a bag is a bit of an unknown this is always best avoided in Thailand.

Extra Advice: Markets

It is not uncommon for street vendors to sell their goods from a piece of material placed on the ground. If this is the case the goods will be at the level of your feet. Don’t point at things with your feet and don’t step over the goods if you don’t want to offend the seller and get the best price possible!

 

Smile:

It’s a cliché but Thailand is known as “The Land of Smiles” because the Thai people really do smile a lot! It shouldn’t be denied that generally, as a people, the Thais are very warm and accommodating, but Thai people may sometimes wear a smile to cover their true emotions and prevent “losing face”, know in Thai as “sia naa”. When a Thai does something wrong, a simple smile may avoid a conflict and when returned can defuse a tense situation.

The visitor might be confused when a Thai person laughs or smiles at a time that they may think it inappropriate but this is generally to cover the fact that a Thai person feels uncomfortable or does not know how to react to the situation they have found themselves in. The smile is a simple tool to avoid any confusion regarding ill-intentions and the Thai smile may be different depending on the situation, though this may be hard for the outsider to spot.

The important thing is that outsiders should not be offended when a Thai smiles “at the wrong time” – this is simply an aspect of Thai behaviour that is particular to Thai culture and will become accustomed to over time.

The way the Thais smile has been interpreted very well by Robert and Nanthapa Cooper, authors of “CultureShock! Thailand” who make the following point: “In the West, a smile is about something. In Thailand, a smile is a natural part of life.”

For example is someone falls over a Thai would most likely laugh at them but the intent is not to ridicule the person that fell. As Robert and Nanthapa point out, the Thai that laughs at another’s misfortune is just as likely to assist the unfortunate one.