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Cover story : 25 Aug 2004
Vol. 21 No. 10
The Wai
A Graceful Gesture of Greeting
By Rachawadi
Photos by courtesy of Ministry of Culture

When people meet or leave each other, they usually say and / or do something, to each other to show their good feelings or respect. There are many different ways of such expression, which may vary according to one's nationality, sex, religion, age and occupation and also the degree of formality or informality.

For example, you may say "hello", "sawatdi", "nihao" or "anyong haseyo" according to whether you are an American, Thai, Chinese or Korean. You may smile, nod, bow or kneel according to whom you make the gesture to. You may shake hands, raise your hands to your chest with the palm pressed against each other, or extend your open hands to join those of the other person, according to whether you are a Christian, Buddhist or Muslim.

Predominantly Buddhist, the Thai people greet one another in the Buddhist way described above, which is called wai in Thai. The wai originated from India and is still used in that country. Later it was adopted by the Buddhists and has become the standard gesture of respect of the followers of Buddhism throughout the world.
But the Thais, especially Thai ladies, are known to perform the wai more neatly and gracefully than most of the others. That is because the people in this country combine the gesture with a deep bow and with both upper arms drawn near the body.
The gesture of saluting a Buddhist monk.
There are three different levels of making the gesture, each appropriate for a different set of occasions.
(1) The solemnest occasion is, of course, when one worships a Buddha image or salutes a Buddhist monk. There are two different ways for males and females to wai.
Males: Bow low while raising both hands with palm pressed together up to the face with the forefingers touching the fringe of the hair above the forehead.
Females: Move a foot backward and bend the knees while raising both pressing palms to the same position as men do.
The gesture of paying respect to a senior.
(2) The next level is to pay respect to a senior in age or in rank or someone we highly respect.
Males: Bow slightly, raise the hands and bend the head until the forefingers touch the part of the face between the eyebrows.
Females: Bend the knees slightly and do the same as men.
The gesture of paying respect to ordinary people.
(3) The last level is to wai someone who one respects or who is one's equal in age or social status.
Males: Bend the head a little bit and raise the hands until the forefingers touch the tip of the nose.
Females: Slightly bend the knees or just bend the head like men and raise the hands to the same position.
The gesture of greeting someone who is one's equal in age or social status.
As the wai is more a way to show respect than to greet, it is always done first by the side who is junior in age, rank or position. If the difference is great, the other side may ignore the gesture or raise his hands slightly or just smile in return.

When one wais someone, it will look more elegant if one does gently and not carelessly. And when one is waied, one is supposed to return the wai to the other. However, Buddhist monks do not have to do so because they are considered representatives of the Buddha. In fact, they constitute the highest class in society. Even the king should wai them when meeting them in a ceremony. Moreover, usually, people smile and say sawatdi to each other at the same time of the wai gesture.
What should you do about the wai as a foreign visitor? In normal circumstances, you are advised against doing this to anybody unless first, you are sure that the person you meet is one who deserves your respect; secondly, you are introduced to a group of people; or thirdly, you receive a wai first. In the first case, a wai is only proper, though you can also do in your native way or the universal way.
When a superior is waied, he or she is supposed
to return the wai to an inferior.
In the second, a wai will make you popular with the group instantly. And in the third, a wai in return is polite, no matter who the other side may be. But you won't be blamed if you don't wai in any of these situations. You'll be excused since you are a foreigner.

For the correct pronunciation of romanized Thai words, see
Romanization System of the Thai Language.

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