The Maori people of New Zealand greet visitors by pressing foreheads and noses together with their eyes closed. Tibetans stick out their tongue to say hi. Americans might go in for a handshake, a fist bump or a high-five as ways of salutation. But perhaps the most delicate and graceful greeting of all is the wai, a traditional greeting in Thailand. A large part of the Thai culture is about being polite and respectful to other people at all times. The best and easiest way that foreign tourists can be respectful to Thai people is via the traditional greeting and hand gesture called the ‘wai’ (pronounced like ‘why’).
The wai is used when greeting or thanking someone and it can be done, quite simply, by putting your hands together (similar to praying) in front of your chest and bowing your head slightly. Waiing is a courteous and respectful thing to do. So who should you wai? In general at a social gathering if someone wai’s to you first then you would be expected to wai back. However, you are not expected to wai to children or to wai anyone who is serving you, such as a restaurant greeter or a doorman, but there is no harm done if you do wai to these people. A good general rule of thumb to waiting is as follows – always wai to people who you are meeting for the first time, to people you are thanking for something, or to people who you are greeting generally. You can also wai as a way to apologize, if you step on someone’s foot or bump into someone.
There are also different kinds of wais. The normal wai is with your hands pressed together at about chest level, presenting a slight bow with your body. The wai to a superior is with the tips of your fingers at nose level, still bowing your body. To convey the most respect and gratitude, you will wai with your fingertips at mouth level and present a deeper and longer bow. If one receives a wai while carrying goods, or for any reason that makes returning it difficult, one should still show their respect by making a physical effort to return it as best as possible under the circumstances.
The higher you hold your hands when doing the wai and the longer you bow your head, the more respectful the greeting is. The wai has its origin in Indo-Aryan languages – the dominant family of languages spoken in Indian subcontinent, and is similar to the Indian namasté and the Cambodian sampeah. Another school of thought it the wai originated from an ancient greeting that was done to show neither individual had any weapons.