Culture Shock Thailand; Meeting and Greeting

As said in a recent blogpost, I did a write up for for Expat Arrivals about culture shock in Thailand. Having previously lived in Ho Chi Minh City, I have to say that there was not a huge Culture Shock for me. Not to say that the two countries are the same, but in a way I think I start to understand the South-East Asian culture a little bit better and I know what is coming. Besides that we have visited Thailand a couple of times, so we already knew some of the cultural ‘quirks’ that were coming. Another reason could be that I don’t have an office job, so my interaction with locals is much less then in Ho Chi Minh City.

However, whether you move from Vietnam to Thailand or from Amsterdam to Paris, you will always see changes, even though from a distance the people look quite te same. One of the first things I noticed was how people greet each other in Thailand.


Wai – close up; image from

In Holland you greet another person by giving them a hand and shaking it or, if you know the person better, by kissing a person on the cheeks three times (alternating the cheeks with each kiss). However in Thailand this is not the case, here you greet with a wai {pronounced in Thai as “why”}. I can still remembering visiting Bangkok a couple of years back, and seeing one of my friends {who lived in BKK for some time} greeting everyone she knew with a wai. I thought it was kind of strange, but she said it was a form of respect by greeting in this way, and that if I would ever move to Thailand I would soon do the same. And off course she was right.

But how to perform a wai in the right manner? It’s quite simple actually: place the palm of your hands together at chest level, holding them close to your body, and make a slight bow. The higher you place your hands, the more respect you show to the other person, however you should never have the tips of your fingers higher than your nose. With this gesture men say sawadee-krap and women say sawadee-ka. These greetings are used to say both hello as well as goodbye.

Foreigners {or farangs as the Thai like to call us}, are not assumed to initiate a wai, however it is an insult if a person does’t return the wai. Also you should not give a wai if your hands are full, instead the objects in your hands should be put down after which you perform the wai. I was struggling with this last one, as usually I would walk from my car back to the apartment with my hands filled with groceries, books, or whatever I was bringing back home. This would mean that every few meters I would have to stop, put down all my stuff and give someone a wai, before I could continue my way home. Not a big deal, but this would take me an additional 15min to take a simple 2min walk from my car to my house. So I asked one of my Thai friends what to do about this. She told me that the most important thing would be that a wai is acknowledged. So as long as you dip your head in a light bow and greet with the proper sawasdee-ka {or sawasdee-krab if you’re a guy} I would not insult anyone. Pfiew problem solved!

While we’re on the subject, some other facts about greeting in Thailand:

  • In Thai etiquette the subordinate should always offer a wai first. Embarrassment can accidentally be caused when offering a wai to someone of lower social standing, since doing so can cause them to lose face… Which for me is another strange thing, as I am doing something wrong, so why would someone else lose face. But that’s a totally different topic.
  • You should be aware that, for the above reason, a wai is not used to greet children, waiters {or any kind of ‘servants’}, street vendors or labourers, as they are of a lower social standing. For this reason even when they greet you with a lovely wai, it’s not expected to return one. So what should you do instead, as not acknowledging them is very unkind in my book? The answer is easy; simply nod and smile in response.
  • Another thing that I noticed when meeting people, is that the person with the lower status is being introduced first. For instance, a secretary is introduced before her boss. Instead of what I am used to back home where the boss would be introduced first (as he’s most important), followed by the by the other people that join the meeting.
  • And even at McDonalds they get the Wai down:






So as you can see, a simple thing such as meeting and greeting takes up a whole different kind of turn in another country. And since I have started looking into this, I can come up with many more difference, not sure whether we can count them as a culture shock, but it’s something interesting and fun to think about. Let me know if the meeting and greeting is any different in your country, or if you have anything that you;ve noticed to be different in your country, it would be fun to explore them together. So to be continued…

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