The gesture dates to the 12th century, where both hands clasped together in front proved that you weren’t holding a weapon. So, how, when and with whom should you wai? Here’s your primer: a few easy tips to learn how to wai.
How to wai?
Largely speaking, the height of your hands in relation to your head indicates the degree of respect.
1. Your ‘safest bet’: Your ‘safest bet’, versatile wai – your fingertips will go below your chin (see any Ronald McDonald in Thailand). Make sure your palms touch together (as in a praying gesture), and your elbows tuck into your sides. This is a wai for equals or for those whose status you don’t yet know.
2. For slightly more respect: For slightly more respect, the fingertips climb to the tip of your nose.
3. For people of high standing: For people of high standing or older people, your fingertips touch level with your eyebrows.
4. For royalty and monks: And lastly, for royalty and monks, a very high wai (with fingertips touching hairline) would be accompanied by a bow from men or a curtsy from women.
Wai rules for foreigners
As a foreigner you don’t look Thai, dress Thai and you probably can’t eat full-strength Thai curry either… this means you’re exempt from Thailand’s most nuanced courtesies. There’s a lot of subtlety in the Thai wai so, chances are, you’re not going to get it right. But your best efforts will be appreciated. How to wai when you’re uncertain? At a minimum, when someone wais to you, return the gesture with a kind smile and an acknowledging nod.
In restaurants and shops: You’ll often receive a wai from shop and restaurant staff. It’s not necessary to wai in return to anyone providing you with a service of this nature. Instead, a nice (grateful) smile is plenty.
To children / those younger than you: Also, there’s no need to wai to a child or anyone who’s clearly younger than you – so, baby boomers, you’re increasingly in the clear! The wai is a mark of respect to elders.
Holding something in your hands? No matter – your phone, camera or a shopping bag can end up in the middle.
Once you feel comfortable in the basics, it’s very interesting to watch Thais greet each other and observe the great subtlety in this respectful gesture. Hotel staff or any restaurant servers you befriend will be happy to teach you (and certainly your children). Just ask!