Recently many foreigners have been in the news for a variety of reasons and have been pictured wai-ing in forgiveness.
And even though they have tried to show their knowledge of Thai culture by clasping their hands in front of them, did they get it remotely right?
Some reports suggested that they did not.
There was the bicyclist in Chiang Mai who was pictured in an act of contrition outside the police station after he was caught recklessly riding up Doi Suthep on the wrong side of the road. He had placed his hands somewhere around his navel.
Then there was the pair of tourists who turned themselves in to Krabi police after they had been filmed in an infamous blow-job incident on Koh Phi Phi. They looked like they were praying with their hands upon their sorry chests.
Also in the news was a Thai “boy” who leapt to the ground in a police station to perform another gesture of forgiveness by prostrating himself at the feet of the mother he had stolen from. What was that all about?
The “wai” is a gesture used in Thai culture in a multitude of ways for many things. How and to whom it is performed is taught to Thai children by parents and teachers from an early age. It seems a bit of a minefield to many foreigners resident in the kingdom – so much so that many seem to avoid doing it altogether. They even laugh at tourists for getting it wrong.
But many who live in Thailand know that it is really necessary to know how to wai properly and to know who to wai. It is akin to knowing how to handshake or greet in the West.
So what are the basics of wai-ing?
Guidelines on how to wai are issued by the Education Ministry in literature about Thai Manners. This is available in the Thai language and is even in English for use in international schools. I should know – though I am English I was a teacher of Thai language and culture at international schools in Bangkok for 20 years. I ran a term long on the basics of Thai manners for Year 8 students (early teenagers) and used the ministry’s guidelines as a basis for my lessons.
I told my students that the important thing was not moving your hands but moving your head.
The hands should be clasped together in front of the upper body with the thumbnails together. When wai-ing older people or respected individuals like teachers the thumbnails should end up on the tip of the nose when the head is lowered.
For monks the thumbnails should end up between the eyebrows.
Wai-ing friends or people of roughly the same age and social status it is only necessary to have the nails end up just below the chin and a casual nod of the head is all that is required.
The fourth and last wai that I taught was called receiving a wai. This is when people of a lower age or status wai you. Of course it may not be necessary to wai at all but when you do the hands should be clasped on the chest and eye contact should be made with the other person. It is not necessary to bow the head at all and of course the younger person will wai first.
My students always laughed when I showed them the fifth wai that I didn’t really teach – the one where the hands are raised to the top of the head in a gesture of “don’t kill me!”
I believe that wai-ing is not just important for Thais but also for residents and visitors alike. It can create very harmonious feelings and help in all manner of ways. It can be used instead of or as an adjunct to language. It speaks volumes to Thais about who you are and what you know.
And while it is good to try and get it right as outlined above it is the effort that is made –like speaking Thai – rather than the level of expertise that is most important. Thais don’t expect foreigners to know all the ins and outs of their culture but knowing some brings dividends.
When I was a schoolteacher I wai-ed many times in a day. Now retired from that it is less so but still important. I will always wai people I meet in social situations. Always return wais to adults unless they are people in shops then I will just nod.
When going to my Thai wife’s family I will seek out the older members and wai them appropriately. I will return wais from her brothers and sisters and their children as outlined above.
When going about business at government offices, immigration and police stations I will always wai officials first before sitting down at their desks no matter what their age.
Earlier this month I needed to greet a Thai princess and member of the royal family. Here no wai is necessary – just a bow at the waist. Fortunately protocol experts are always on hand at such occasions!
So what was the “boy” doing at the police station. This is called the “graap” in the Thai language and is used in cases of showing great apology or greeting or saying goodbye to superiors in much more formal occasions.
In this gesture the person should sit on the floor with their feet tucked into the side. The hands are placed on the floor upright and the head is lowered to them once.
When the Thais “graap” in a temple to monks and Buddhist images the seating position is often different and the hands are usually laid flat with the head lowered three times the norm.
My second wife “graaped” me after we married. She also graaped my first wife in apology once….
My first wife asked my luuk kreung children to graap me on Father’s Day each year. I certainly wouldn’t have insisted on this but it pleased her no end.
I ran Teacher’s Day ceremonies annually at my school – I was head of the Thai Department – for ten consecutive years before I retired in 2013. I asked students to graap their teachers on a stage and present floral tributes. Many were Western teachers and some felt awkward but we did it all the same to show Thai culture.
While the graap may well be something that people will need to do very infrequently and for foreigners maybe never, the wai is much more important.
Learning how to wai is very important in my opinion. When I ran my course the teenagers – about 80% of whom were Thai nationals – would groan. But at the end of the course they were proud of what they had learnt.
I set Thai manners in the context of international manners. The first two lessons involved showing classes how to do good handshakes with eye contact and a strong grip. How they used to squirm when I explained how important it was in many cultures to kiss on meeting.
Children were deliberately presented with scenarios to challenge their conception of why people do certain things. I would place a fan, for example, on the floor of the classroom and turn it off with my foot and ask the Thais in the class if they would do that. Many said they would. Their international friends new to the country didn’t understand what it was all about until it was explained that it might be inappropriate.
Then I would ask the Thais if they would use their foot if their grandmother was watching. The number who said they would went down dramatically!
Other things from different cultures were explored from asking permission to leave the table to how to place chopsticks or knives and when you have finished with them. Nobody will forget being asked to try to burp to show their appreciation of a good meal! These lessons were some of the most memorable in my long career.
Later in the course Thais and non-Thais got into groups to learn how to do a variety of Thai gestures – including wai and graap – that were tested by me. There were only two marks – pass or fail. If they failed they did it until they passed. Everyone passed in the end and got free time to hang out.
I made an entire career helping Thais to appreciate their language and culture and helping non-Thais gain an insight into their surroundings. Mind you I had a great advantage – I wasn’t Thai!
Just learning when to wai and how to wai is a great start. For many in Thailand I will be preaching to the converted but for some who might have dismissed the idea you may be glad later that you did.