While many Thais are very Westernized today and understand the international meaning associated with most cues, their pride in their cultural customs means that as a visitor, being proficient in such non-verbal communication can award you a deeper respect and acceptance among the locals with whom you interact.
The Thai greeting
Thais are receptive to the Western practice of handshaking, and will often do so to make Westerners feel more comfortable, but a tradition that has permeated into all aspects of 21st century culture is the wai. Used when greeting one another, to say goodbye, or show respect, gratitude, or apology, the hands are placed together in prayer and raised upwards towards the face, while the head lowers in a slight bow and the eyes are lowered.
Social status is extremely engrained in the exchange of wais, and the height of the hands is typically dependent on the perceived status or respect of the person you are greeting – monks, superiors, and the elderly are greeted with hands raised to the bridge of the nose, while younger people and subordinates may only receive a slight nod. Regardless, Thais are not overly critical of foreigners making accidental faux paus during their exchange of wais, but will appreciate the effort taken to engage in the revered local custom.
To not return the wai is considered very impolite, only monks and the King do not have to return wais. If the person greeting you says “hello,” returning the verbal cue will get you far in earning his or her respect.
Men say hello with: “sah wah dee khrap”
Women say hello with: “sah wah dee khaa”
Thailand’s moniker as “the land of smiles” is no happy accident – the smile is ubiquitous to Thai culture and itself can convey a whole array of unspoken cues. According to some sources there are 13 different words in Thai for a smile, each attached to different situations ranging from teasing, admiration, disagreement, or politeness. In general, it’s always considered polite to return a Thai’s smile as it’s typically quite genuine. Most Thais believe being too serious is unhealthy and can cause illness, so smile away!
Traditionally, Thais consider feet to be the lowest and filthiest part of the body. As such, pointing your feet at another person or sacred item – such as a statue of the Buddha – is considered extremely disrespectful. This is something of added importance for foreigners, who are often accustomed to crossing their legs while seated and are not usually aware of the direction in which their crossed foot is pointed.
It is also considered rude to put your feet up on a table or other surface, and like many Asian cultures it is nearly universally required to take your shoes off before entering a home, business, or even the local store.
Conversely, the head is the most sacred place on the human body and like many cultures of Southeast Asia, it is forbidden to touch someone on their head. This is particularly true for children. A child’s “kwan,” or individual spirit, is not strong enough to be touched, and some Thais believe the child could become ill or experience nightmares if this taboo is broken.
Because of this respect for the kwan, it is also considered rude to stand over someone older and therefore wiser than yourself. While a person may be physically taller and naturally have their head “over” another, Thais will lower their head when passing or interacting with those older or superior to themselves.
When presenting or receiving things, like money, gifts, food, or business cards, it is respectful to exchange items using two hands, especially with someone you’ve just met or is older than you.
In general, the left hand is considered unclean – traditionally the left was the “wiping hand” before the days of bum gums and toilet paper – and is not used to eat, receive gifts, or shake hands.
The “OK” sign
A circled thumb and index finger, often a sign for “okay” or “I understand” in many cultures, can actually convey a sexual connotation in Thailand. While the gesture has more or less evolved to its more international meaning among Thai adults, children will still use it to tease one another or get away with non-verbally communicating something rude behind their parents or teachers’ back.
Thais value quiet and low-impact steps, a behavior especially trained among young Thai girls who are taught to put their bodyweight on their toes and walk slowly. Traditionally, this method could have been important to help make wooden and bamboo floors last longer and while today it is not as scrutinized, humble and peaceful steps are valued among members of Thai society.
Termed the “kwang myy,” the Thai gesture for “come here” is actually similar to what Westerners would use for “go away,” with an open palm angled down, moving upward and downward repeatedly.
Pointing solely with the index finger, common among Western cultures, is used only during an argument. Otherwise pointing is reserved for addressing inanimate objects, and even then is it more polite to point with your entire hand rather than a single finger. To indicate another person, Thais will lift their chin slightly in their direction.
Traditionally, giving someone the “thumbs up” gesture is similar to giving them the middle finger – ultimately derogatory in nature. While adults in Thailand today have adopted its more international meaning of approval or a job well done, it’s still common for kids to exchange the gesture during a childish argument.
Tossing any item – especially money – is considered extremely rude. Thais expect others to take the time to respectfully hand items over properly, either with both hands or with the right hand. Money should be unfolded when paying someone.
Thai money itself denotes a certain amount of respect. Thailand enforces the world’s strictest lese majeste laws, which carry harsh penalties for any open disrespect toward the King or any member of the royal family – even his dog. As the King’s image appears on all Thai Baht, tossing or stepping on money is viewed as extremely disrespectful and any accident should include a quick khaaw tho, or “pardon me!”
Hunger Games salute
A more recent development in Thai non-verbal culture, Thailand’s military rulers are seeking to police the use of a three-fingered salute borrowed from the popular young adult series The Hunger Games. In the book and movie series, the salute is a symbol of rebellion against totalitarian rule, and Thai authorities had monitored its use as a symbol uniting anti-coup protesters before ultimately banning the gesture. Along with the three-fingered salute, any political gathering of more than five people is strictly prohibited.