Thailand has a reputation for some of the friendliest people in the world. As soon as you arrive in the country, you’ll begin to notice the traditional Thai greeting known as the “wai.” This indicates respect through the action of pressing your palms together close to your chest and bowing slightly.
A common mistake made by travelers is not realizing that how the wai is performed indicates the social status of the greeters. Thais take social status very seriously. The person of higher social status is the one who should be wai’d by the other party. Higher status can be related to age or it can be related to social position or business status.
A wai with fingertips raised to the forehead is only given to monks or the Thai King, who is highly revered by the Thai people. The recipient of the wai may wai back, but they will either not bow, or not bow as deeply due to their higher status. If the two parties are equals the wai is performed with the fingertips reaching neck level but not above the chin. A guest in the country should not wai anyone whom they are paying to provide a service such as a taxi driver, waiter or shopkeeper.
To add to the complicated nature of the rules of the wai, the wai is sometimes used to greet objects rather than people. Travelers may notice taxi drivers or people in buses performing a wai when passing an image of a Buddha or a temple. The wai is used for more than greeting people; it can also be used to say ‘goodbye’, ‘thank you’ or ‘sorry.’
Learning all the subtleties of the wai can be confusing; the Thais have been trained in the art since birth and do not expect visitors to always respond correctly. If uncertain what to do, a warm smile often goes a long way.