The Wai is not just a gesture used to say hello without speaking, it is an sign of respect. Its use demonstrates much about Thai values and attitudes. It is the most important of the many social customs that are used in Thai society. It does so by publicly demonstrating what we call the 'superiority rule'. This basic rule is simple and clear. In any social meeting, the socially inferior person assumes a physically inferior posture and the socially superior individual takes a position that is physical superior. The person in the higher position is dominant both physically and socially.
The wai may a method of showing respect in different degrees. It is done as follows.The lower the head bowed to meet the thumbs of both hands which are pressed palms together with fingers pointed up in a praye like position, the greater the respect being shown. There are four basic positions with each having many variances.
1. Hands close to the body with fingertips reaching to about neck level but not above the chin. This position is used between equals or between strangers who are not yet aware of each others social positions.
2. Hands close to the body with fingertips reaching to about neck level as in position #1 or lower with head straight or slightly inclined is used by a superior returing the wai to an inferior.
3. Head lowered so that fingertips are above the tip of the nose is used by an inferior showing respect to a superior.
4. Forehead lowered to base of the thumbs and lowered body is the position used to show respect to the King, monks, temples, statues and spirit houses.
When to wai and how to wai is learned in early childhood and is second nature for a Thai. It is sometime confursing to a visitor. The fact is that Thais use the wai to say Hello, Thank you and Goodbye. They also use it to show respect to the Buddha, the King, the monks, older people, statues and spirit houses. As a foreigner, the best advice maybe to wai when someone wais you. or smile and nod you head when you are not sure what to do. As for the King or monks let your own religous and political beliefs be your guide, always remembering how you would like your countries leader and your religious leaders to be treated. In other words, showing proper respect for them will go a long ways in presenting a good image for you and your country. The Thai people would most certainly show that respect when visiting your country.