The ไหว้ (waiF) is the Thai equivalent of the handshake. It’s a polite greeting that you will use on a daily basis in Thailand and you will impress many if you can do a ไหว้ the correct way. The basic action is to place your hands (palms together) in front of your body. Many foreigners fail to learn the proper greeting based on the age and status of the other person, and learning the correct way to wai will impress many Thais that you meet (and maybe save you some embarrassment too)!
The ‘Levels’ Of The Wai
The three different ‘levels’ or types of wai are explained in the following sections. If there’s a single mistake that foreigners make when trying to wai it’s that they try to do it too often. It’s really only appropriate when you see someone for the first or last time for a day, and occasionally alongside an expression of thanks or apology.
Wai Level 1
The first level is used to greet people that are younger than you, such as students at school. You place your hands together and your thumbs should meet just below your chin and only slightly tilt your head down, as in the picture below. This should be used to ‘accept’ other people’s wai, as the younger person is the one that will initiate the greeting.
Wai Level 2
The second level is used to greet people that are older than you, such as fellow teachers or the principal of your school. When you are greeting people that are older than you place your hands together and your thumbs should meet at your nose. You should tilt your head down slightly as you do this wai, as seen in the image below.
Some men will tilt their heads less and instead move their hands up more when performing this wai, but this comes off as more masculine and you probably shouldn’t imitate it until you have a better sense of context and when this might be appropriate.
This is the wai that would be used with a thanks or an apology, especially if you receive something quite large or do/say something wrong.
Wai Level 3
The third level is reserved for greeting the royal family or religious figures (monks and nuns). You probably won’t get a chance greet any royalty in Thailand, but there are ample opportunities to meet monks as you travel around. To politely wai such a person you must place your hands together and this time your thumbs should meet between your eyebrows and you should tilt your head down a significant amount to help achieve a proper wai. As a rule, Buddhist monks and nuns will never wai laypeople, so don’t feel offended or ignored when they don’t respond to your greeting.
That’s about it for the wai! If you follow these simple rules and pay attention to what the Thais around you are doing, you’ll quickly catch on and fit in either in the workplace or as you travel around. And if you make any big mistakes don’t forget to do a deep wai in addition to your apology as a way to show that you’re serious about saying sorry.