In Thailand, we greet each other by gracefully raising both hands near the head or chest and pressing our palms together like as in prayer and say “Sawadee Krub” if you’re a male or “Sawadee Ka”, if you are a female. This gesture is called a “Wai” and it’s our traditional and current way of greeting and showing respect to each other. Sounds quite simple right? …Wrong! You also need to know why, when, and how to wai. You certainly don’t want to go around and wai everyone you bump into, people will think you’re a bit insane.
We Wai each other not for the sole purpose of greeting, but the wai is a gesture of respect. The greeting is done just by saying “Sawadee Krub/Ka” and the wai adds respects to the greeting. We also wai when someone gives us a gift and say “Kob Khun Krub/Ka” while receiving the gift. So you see, the main purpose of this gesture is actually to show respect and not simply a way of saying “Hi”.
When to wai
A wai is usually given when you meet someone for the first time and you want to show respect to this person (i.e. your parent’s friends or someone older than you). If the person being introduced is younger than you, you have to wait for this person to wai you first and then you reciprocate with a wai. If you’re the same age, you can just nod your head and say “Sawadee Krub/Ka”. We Thais respect our elders by giving the wai first. However, you don’t always have to follow the age rule, as the main reason for the wai is to show respect as mentioned. If someone is of the same age, but is of a respectful status like a business partner or a good customer, it’s generally OK to give the wai first as a show of respect.
As a rule of thumb, here are some people you don’t have to wai to first, but you can reciprocate with a wai if you choose to. I usually return a wai when it’s given to me, doesn’t matter who the person is.
- Taxi drivers
- Flight attendance
How to Wai
Now that you know why and when to wai, you now need to know how to wai, as the gesture is different depending on whom you’re interacting with. For someone older or commanding high respect (like the prime minister of Thailand), we wai by raising our clasped palm near the forehead and bowing a little. For someone younger, you can return a wai by placing your clasped palm near the chest. For monks, whom we show the highest respect, we place our clasped palm near our head and kneel down as well to be in a lowered position to show the utmost respect.
So if you’re in a “to wai or not to wai” situation, just ask yourself whether or not you want to show this person the most respectful form or greeting.