In the Thai culture, the way to greet someone isn’t with a handshake, a high five or a head nod.
The way to greet someone in Thailand is with a wai (pronounced why).
A wai is where you put your hands together in front of you, as if for prayer, and then bow to the person you are greeting.
The wai apparently originated in ancient times as a way for people to show each other that they weren’t carrying any weapons.
They couldn’t say, “Hey, I’m not carrying weapons?”
It eventually became the standard, polite way to greet someone and then morphed to carry even greater weight.
Now, not only is a wai the way you say hello to someone in Thailand, it is the way you show respect to them as well, as hierarchy of social class is important and prominent in Thailand.
There are different levels of wai and if you dispatch the wrong one at the wrong time, it can be seriously insulting.
The first type of wai greeting is a friend to familiar friend wai. In this greeting, the hands are against the chest, with the fingers touching the bottom of the chin.
The bow here is more of a slight lean.
This is the most common wai and is what I would say is the equivalent of a hello wave or casual handshake.
The next one is directed at someone who is superior to you – a parent, grandparent, your boss or teacher.
The hands are the same, pressed flat together. What changes is the height at which you place them.
For the more respectful wai, the thumbnails should be placed no lower than the tip of the nose and the bow is a little more pronounced.
Then there is the most respectful wai, where the thumbs are against the forehead and the bow is even more pronounced. This is reserved for monks or, on some occasions, teachers.
With Veteran’s Day coming up, I got to thinking about ways in which us Americans show respect. Or rather lack of ways.
The American culture doesn’t really have its own wai – a quick and easy way to show someone you respect them, or how much you respect them.
Shake someone’s hand? I don’t know if a handshake alone addresses the nuance of the feeling of respect.Is it maybe that we shake the hand harder and with a firmer grip if we respect the person more?
I don’t think we have rules written into handshakes like that.
Other than just telling someone that you respect them, in our culture, is there a simple way to express that feeling?
Maybe a handshake or a head nod is enough, but then we have to be careful and can’t just go throwing out handshakes and head nods around to just anyone!
I guess the best way to show respect here in America is to just go up to someone and say, “Hey. I respect you.”
Maybe even tell them why you respect them.
“Hey. I respect you because you dedicated your time to helping me learn and become a better person.” Or maybe “I respect you because you put your own life on the line to ensure that people that you don’t know and will never know have a safe place to try to be what they want to be and freely do what they want to do.”
Who wants to have to say all that to someone’s face?! I’m shy.
Wait, now that I am writing it, it doesn’t sound so hard.
Maybe showing respect isn’t something that should be reduced to a simple gesture.
Not to say the wai is wrong by any means, but it doesn’t really do justice to the complexities of each human experience and why we choose to, or not to, respect someone.
The wai is a friendly enough gesture but kind of pressures the issuer of the wai into making a sweeping judgment about the person it is directed at right then and there, usually based on clothes or material reasons, without getting into the deeper experience of the person.
But one might think actually getting to know someone is hard. And I agree. It takes time and effort. But, from my experience, it’s always worth it.
I could be thinking way to into this, and like with most things in my life, probably am.
Anyways, in case I don’t see you in person, here’s a thank you to veterans everywhere. And if I do happen to see you, that weird bow, prayer-looking thing I am doing is totally normal.