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The wai is the traditional Thai greeting. A wai is accomplished by raising both hands and putting them palm to palm in a prayer like gesture while slightly bowing you head.
To Thai people the wai is second nature and visitors to Thailand can show and receive respect by using this customary greeting. Thai people do not generally shake hands but some will accept a handshake with you, although it would be far more polite to wai first.
The wai plays a very important role in paying respect and is central to Thai etiquette. It is a good idea for anybody who lives in or visits Thailand to learn how to wai and to understand that the western practice of a kiss-on- each -cheek greeting will raise alarm, especially if a man tries to use this greeting with a woman who is not his wife or girlfriend.
If a Thai adult wai’s you it would be very impolite not to return the wai. However if you have your hands full this can sometimes be harder than it sounds. If somebody offers you a wai and you really are not in a position to be able to return it then you must at least acknowledge the gesture. If you have something in your hands that does not prevent you from returning a wai, such as a mobile phone then you can wai with the phone between your hands, as it is only royalty and monks who are not always required to return a wai.
A wai is a show of respect as well as a greeting. You may ask yourself as a foreigner who should wai who first. The best rule of thumb is just to wai anybody important at your earliest opportunity.
When to wai depends on the relationship you have with the other person. Anybody with a high social status should be wai’ed without prompt such as your bank manager, a teacher, the local mayor. You should also wai anybody older than you without a prompt unless they work for you, such as a gardener or a cleaner. You generally would not wai to shopkeepers, taxi drivers, waiters and vendors either and generally you would not wai to your friends unless it has been a while since you last saw them. However it is polite to wai when leaving a gathering. It is not necessary to wai everybody individually, just a group wai will suffice.
If you receive a gift from a superior then it is only polite to wai before you receive the gift, and during religious ceremonies you should hold a wai for the entire time. Often Thai people can be seen taking their hands of the steering wheel of their car to wai if they drive past a scared monument.
As well as knowing when and when not to wai it is good to understand the different kind of wai’s. A normal wai involves pressing your hands together at chest level and bowing slightly with your body. Holding your hands together at nose level while bowing is the way to wai a superior. If you really want to convey gratitude and respect then wai with your fingertips at mouth level and give a longer, deeper wai.
Children should wai their parents before they go to school and once again when they return. Adults arriving at their workplace would normally wai their colleagues and bosses and it can also be used by way of apology, for example if you trod on somebody’s foot.
Interestingly you should never wai a child before they wai you, this is thought to give them bad luck.
And please remember if you do decide to give a wai, please do it in a graceful manner. It should always be done slowly and with feeling