I still remember the first time I used the wai. It was in a house church in Bangkok. When I entered the room I tried to greet the whole group by using one wai. The same way you could greet a group by waving your hand saying ‘Good morning’. As I look back, this was a first attempt of being involved in Thai customs. I felt very uncomfortable, but probably, the Thai felt as uncomfortable as me, since I wai-ed to them in a foreign way.
One of our team members read the book ‘Thais say it best when they say nothing at all’ written by Annie Leo. In this book she writes a helpful chapter about The Wai, which I wish I read and applied before.
The wai is not a simple alternative of greeting by shaking each others hands. Much more is hidden by this on the surface, simple custom. The wai is used by a junior to show respect to a senior. A senior could be someone senior in age or senior in social status. A wai could be used as a greeting, but also to worship sacred objects, opening and closing a meeting or as a sign of thanks. The wai is executed by putting the palms together and placing them at the appropriate level close to the body. The amount of respect is seen by the level of the bowed head and body. The more respect the lower you will bow. Eyes should look down when you are executing the wai. Besides this it is important that the wai should be done respectfully, willingly and preferably gracefully. All though at first sight all wais look the same, the above states that the wai should be done in different ways at different times. This depends on the relationship the two people have. When Thais meet they will ask themselves the question ‘What is our relationship?’ and according to that give the appropriate wai. Have a look around you in different situations and you will see the different wai positions. But remember when to wai is more important than how to wai. If a Thai doesn’t know someone’s social status, he will use outward appearance, small talk or an introduction from someone else to get to know the social status of the person he meets. Small talk is not only used because they are relationship oriented, but also to know how your social status relates to theirs.
In some relationships it is very clear who is the senior. For example: the king is the senior of his subjects, the parents to their children, the teachers to their students, the priests to lay persons and the boss to his employees.
Another interesting observation the author describes is that foreigners are tempted to wai to everyone, because they see everyone as their equal. But Thai won’t wai (at least not initiate the wai) to a junior: a boss not to their subordinates, a customer not to a waitress, a teacher not to a student. Being nice and friendly is still possible in other ways!