One of the most important aspects of Thai culture is understanding and recognizing the levels of status amongst Thai people. How you talk, how you act around, and certainly how you greet someone is all predicated on where that person fits in the age and social order compared to you.
Many Thai travel books will have a paragraph or two talking about ไหว้ /wâi/ — the way in which Thai people respectfully greet and thank others. I find, however, that the books stop way short of providing accurate information on the proper way to perform a ไหว้ to someone else.
Thai culture, like many Asian cultures, is all about status. Junior, senior, older, younger… it’s all part of a well-developed pecking order used to help maintain both respect and politeness. In this post I delve a bit deeper, beyond what the typical book or website is inclined to tell you, and hopefully shed some light on the right way to do it depending on the situation.
The first thing you should understand is that Thai people typically do not ไหว้ to close friends or immediate family. A girl will not greet her best friend, whom she speaks on the phone with for hours every day, with a ไหว้ when they see each other in person. That’s not to say that you can’t (or shouldn’t) practice, but it’s something to keep in mind.
As a foreigner dealing with “common” Thai people you will most likely only ever encounter three different ไหว้. There are a few that are reserved for high-ranking officials, as well as separate ไหว้ for the Royal family, but for the sake of this post I’m going to assume that you will not be meeting many people in these classes and therefore concentrate on the ones you will most certainly come across.
Younger Greets Older
When younger and older people meet each other, the responsibility lies on the younger person to initiate the greeting. The younger person will hold her hands together, palms touching, with her hands up so her thumbs are under the chin and fingertips are just below her nose. (This is an approximation.) The older person will hold his hands together, palms touching, at chest level… just like you see in the picture at the beginning of the post. A small bow then follows, along with the appropriate spoken greeting which is usually สวัสดีค่ะ /sà wàt dii kâ/ or สวัสดีครับ /sà wàt dii kráp/ depending on who is saying what.
It is very important to note that if the younger person does not ไหว้ to you, especially as a foreigner, you should not ไหว้ to them first. This is because if a parent or older relative of the younger person is also present they might feel embarrassed that the younger person did not properly greet you as they have been taught to do. Do not be offended, however; most children are shy enough as it is to get them to greet another Thai person. You are a big, hulking farang and not only do you probably scare them a little bit, but even somewhat older kids probably don’t think you know how to ไหว้ and therefore don’t even think twice about it. (Bear in mind in this case I’m talking about kids more so than teenagers or young adults.)
Greeting a Teacher or Skilled Person
If you greet a teacher, doctor, or other person in a highly skilled profession, it is customary for you to perform your ไหว้ with your thumbs directly under your nose. This will put your fingers at forehead level.
Greeting a Monk
If you get the opportunity to greet a monk, your ไหว้ should be done with your thumbs at forehead level. A few more points about interacting with a monk:
- The greeting for a monk is นมัสการ /ná mát sà gaan/ and not สวัสดีครับ.
- If you are a woman, you should never touch a monk, not even shaking hands. In fact, women are not even supposed to stand close to a monk if possible. You will notice in pictures of monks and women that they is significant distance in between them.
- When speaking to a monk, it is customary to make yourself lower than him. Often this means squatting or kneeling down.
As I said, chances are you probably won’t meet a cabinet official, governor, or member of the Royal family. Just be aware that if you do an even higher level of respect and deference is required.
Learning the proper protocol for ไหว้ can go a long way towards a great vacation or relationship with your Thai friends. If you are unsure, it’s best to err on the side of caution by smiling, performing your ไหว้ as if you are the younger person, and saying the appropriate greeting.