When traveling to any new country, one of the most daunting things to face is interaction with an unknown culture. What some nations deem completely acceptable, are heinously offensive acts to others! All too often, travelers forget to research their destination’s people prior to their trip, resulting in what feels like rude glares and unexplainable snubbing.
Visiting Thailand is no different – although the Thai people are known for their gentle nature, their culture is rich in tradition and etiquette. Deeply entrenched with long-standing non-verbal communication and polite exchange, Thai culture possesses many gestures that hold even more meaning and significance than spoken word.
Body Language and What Yours is Saying
When visiting Thailand, it’s important to remember the significance of the body, and how that impacts the way that you engage with Thai people:
The head is considered sacred in Thailand. It homes intellect and soul, and sits above the rest of the body, in command. That being said, touching someone’s head is very offensive – even the innocent ruffling of a cute kid’s hair. It’s also taboo to step over someone’s head, for example, while they are in prayer at a temple, because it’s perceived as placing filthy feet over someone’s sacred head. In fact, even when passing by someone worthy of respect, such as a monk or an elder, it’s expected to stoop a little, bringing one’s head lower than the other person.
Conversely, the feet are the dirtiest part of the body and considered extremely offensive to Thai people. When visiting Thailand, bear in mind never to point your feet in the direction of another person, particularly the soles of the feet, which are considered the filthiest. When seated on the floor, pretend to be a mermaid – we know you’ve always wanted to – with your feet carefully tucked to one side, pointing away from other people.
Hands are carefully considered in Thai culture, with the left hand believed to be unhygienic. This is because it was typically the “wiping hand” prior to the invention of toilet paper and hand-soap. Despite the advances made in modern hygiene, the long-standing belief about the left-hand remains: when handing an object to someone in Thailand, it is always expected to use the right hand. If you really want to show respect to your hosts, touch your left hand to your right forearm. This demonstrates that the left hand is out of reach and that you are posing no threat.
Hand gestures to take note of are:
While westerners typically shake hands in greeting, exchanging a genteel wai is the ultimate polite greeting, farewell, demonstration of respect or gratitude, and even an apology in Thai culture. Both hands are brought together as if in prayer, and raised to the face, while the head is slightly bowed, and eyes are lowered. When greeting an elder, a monk, or someone of a high status, it’s important to raise the hands right up to the bridge of the nose. This gesture is weighted with social significance, and it’s deemed extremely rude not to offer a wai in return for the same greeting.
Touching the tip of the index finger to the thumb may simply mean “OK!” to westerners, but in Thai culture, this is a rather naughty gesture, loaded with sexual connotations. The ever-gracious Thai people have come to acknowledge the western meaning for this hand-sign, and few will take offense, but avoid using it altogether if you’d like to convey utmost respect to those around you.
Again, to western society, a thumbs-up is a friendly and positive gesture that communicates the message, “all good!” When visiting Thailand, it’s important to remember that a thumbs-up is actually the Thai version of the western middle finger, and you’re essentially sending the rather different message: “eff off!”
Naughty, naughty! Thai people reserve pointing of fingers for arguments. When indicating to another person, they will usually simply lift their chin toward the person. When indicating to inanimate objects, they will gesture toward the object with an open hand, and not a single finger. Didn’t your mother tell you that it’s rude to point?
Behave yourself! What to do when visiting Thailand
Knowing the significance of the body in Thai culture is only half the battle won, in winning over your hosts’ affections! There are also many behaviors that convey respect to the Thai people, namely:
The Land of Smiles
The Smile: Thailand has been dubbed “The Land of Smiles”, and for good reason: smiling is literally part of Thai tradition! It’s a commonly-held belief among Thai culture that taking yourself too seriously is hazardous to your well-being and can even create physical illness. Besides smiling for your own good health, it’s considered quite impudent not to return a smile, so we recommend as much smiling as possible! If, for any reason, you’re having a hard time lightening your countenance, why not sign up for a Krabi pub crawl, and let us put a smile on your face! (We can’t promise that it’ll be good for your health)
Light as a Feather:
As westerners tend to stomp around, completely unaware of the impact made on the ground and those nearby, it seems bizarre – but true – that Thai people value light-footed walking. The Thai people, and especially women and girls, are taught from a young age to put their weight on their toes and to walk slowly. This graceful walking, almost like a ballet-dance, is not imperative to Thai culture, but it does help to earn the admiration of Thai people.
Thai people do not toss things to each other across the room. It’s expected to take the time to respectfully hand an item to a Thai person, and always using the right hand. Throwing anything, especially money, at another person is considered careless and rude.
Mind your temper:
Losing your temper with shouting and an emotional outburst is generally frowned upon in Thai culture. The Thai people hold high regard for people who are able to maintain their cool when things go wrong and even higher regard for those with an innate ability to laugh it off not making one lose face.
Respect the King:
When visiting Thailand, keep your opinions about The Monarchy to yourself.
It’s not only considered extremely disrespectful to publicly berate the King, but it’s actually illegal, and has landed many tourists visiting Thailand in prison. Remember that this applies to what you say out loud, as well as to what you post on social media!
A Mountain is Made from Many Grains of Sand
While some of these traditions may seem small, and some outdated, its important to remember that making real efforts to participate in even the smallest gesture contributes to showing respect and kindness to your Thai hosts, and also earning the same from them in return.
As the saying goes, “when in Rome…”: When visiting Thailand, do as the Thai do, and we can almost guarantee that you’ll leave the land of smiles as a friend, not just a tourist.