[Originally posted on the Fletcher INTERNet]
In Thailand I live by one simple principle: “When in doubt, wai.”
A wai is the traditional Thai greeting. The palms come together and rise, fingertips pointing upwards, elbows close to the body, head bowed. It resembles the Hindu salutation namaste, where the hands are at heart level and elbows slightly out to either side. Namaste, a Sanskrit phrase, may be translated as “the spirit in me meets the same spirit in you” – a celebration of equality and sacredness in all humans.
Brand localization – the tires in me meet the tires in you
But some are more equal than others, so hierarchy dictates the height of your hands (to the chest, nose, forehead?), the angle of the bowed head and body if applicable, and – perhaps most of all – who wais first?
To figure out the right position and timing when you meet someone, you’ll need to assess the other person’s age and place in society relative to your own, plug it into the how-low-do-you-go? formula printed on the back of every Thai birth certificate, and translate it into a graceful, easy movement… within the space of half a second. All is instinctive to the native, but to a not-totally-Thai such as myself it’s a greeting fraught with subtle terror.
The same delicate calculations are required in interactions all over Asia. In Vietnam, what pronoun should I use to address so-and-so who was two years below me at school but is now my older brother’s wife? In Japan, what angle do I bow to my boss when I see him first thing in the morning? and as the day wears on?
I guess it’s difficult to be too polite. When in doubt, wai.
For more on the wai, check out Leonardo DiCaprio and the Thai Wai on the wonderful website of Sriwittayapaknam school in Samutprakan province outside Bangkok, featuring the only school webcam in Thailand.