The Wai

Updated 2009-11-17 19:11

That is the graceful greeting gesture of the Thais, appropriate also to express one's thanks. The wai is implemented by leading the folded hands slowly upward before the chest or - if one wants to express special reverence - before the face, while bending slightly forward. The Wai is given in principle first by people having a lower-standing status, to people having a higher-standing status, or by the staff of a restaurant or a hotel to the guests. The foreigner will usually experience this beautiful custom for the first time, if he enters a plane of Thai Airways or a good hotel and - being a polite person - will then often make the principal error to return the Wai.

The carrying out of this greeting, or its return, is determined and applied by rules in the Thai society, which a Farang most of the time will not understand. So the height, up to which one raises the fingertips will show, which social status one grants to the other one. The Wai with fingertips raised up to the forehead is entitled to be given only to the king and to monks. It is always expected by a younger person to give the Wai first. Who practices the gesture wrongly, always runs the risk to make him look ridiculous. When offering or returning a Wai, the Farang should consider the following rules:
One gives the Wai first only to people with a higher status, e.g. the boss, a venerable older person (e.g. parents-in-law), or to monks, which - independently of their age - for the time they carry the yellow robe, are entitled to the highest social status in the Thai society. Even the king will offer the Wai first to a monk, who will in principle not return it. To children and service personnel, one does not return the Wai, but answers only with an easy nodding of the head. In no case should one thank for a given service, e.g. from the hotel personnel, with a Wai, since they will not only feel pulled on their leg, but it also could bring misfortune to them. The Wai is practiced in Thailand much less than Farang usually assume. If one comes however into contact with a monk, then the Wai is always appropriate.
To the Farang, who want to be courteous, and tries to greet Thais he meets privately or in business with a polite Wai, it will happen again and again, that the other one tries to welcome him according to western custom, by shaking his hand, from which then usually results a rather amusing situation. As an always correct rule one can say, that a Farang ' with the exception of venerable persons - should never greet first with a Wai. If the other one makes the Wai first, then one can answer him in the same manner, either with a somewhat weaker Wai, or nodding friendly with the head. Both is correct and is understood as polite gesture. In no case should one return the Wai to waiters or waitresses, children or if a Thai thanked you for something with a Wai.
It must be advised also against trying to execute a Wai with an opened bottle of beer in the hand, a situation into which one can easily come at a party or in a bar. Depending upon the inclination of the bottle, and the height up to which one raises the folded hands with the bottle, the content will flow either into the own shirt, or over the trousers, and/or the skirt of the so friendly welcomed person.
The Wai is used not only to greet persons, but also to express respect to all venerable objects, above all to Buddha images. Sitting in a bus, one will see again and again, that all the Thais in the bus make a Wai through the window when passing at a temple or a Buddha image. Sometimes this beautiful custom can also become hair-rising for the tourist, e.g. at the busiest crossing in Bangkok, before the Erawan shrine, where the red-light phase of the traffic light takes sometimes more than 10 minutes. There it may happen that the taxi driver, before the traffic light changes to red, while hurrying with squealing, tires on two wheels around the bend, will take both hands from the wheel, in order to show his veneration with a Wai to the image of the God Brahma standing at this corner.
It may also seem somewhat strange to the Farang, if sitting in a Go-Go Bar he will see that the girls, before they go on to the stage, are offering first a Wai to the Buddha image in the corner. Whether they want to ask forgiveness from Lord Buddha for what they are going to do now, or if they asking him, that he may give a good guest to them to spend the evening with, is not to know, probably they want both.
Guenther Ruffert
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