Thailand, ‘The Land of Smiles’ as romantics would call it, could in fact land you in a bit of cultural pickle.
The ‘Land of Smiles’ can be challenging, sure, and with good reason. Thailand celebrates its smiles putting heavy emphasis on masking one’s true feelings. It could confuse outlanders. To really understand a culture,a language, a geography, one needs to learn beyond the superficial stereotyping, and understand the nuances.
Let’s look at the naming customs, shall we?
In Thai culture the first names are generally preceded by the word ‘Khun’ (pronounced ‘Koon’). It stands for a blanket term that translates to Miss, Mrs or Mr. Example, Khun Mary or Khun Simon.
Revered and respected people holding position of power and importance, for example teachers-monks-professors are addressed differently. The word ‘Ajarn’ precedes their first names.
In Thai culture, only written documentations and very formal communications warrant Surnames.
Assigning nicknames is a fairly common practice among Thai people.
All that ‘Wai’
Traditional form of greeting is called the ‘wai’. The practice is hierarchal and is given by a person of lower strature to someone of a higher strature. It’s the most common form of greeting, however it adheres to strict protocols.
The way to greet with ‘wai is to raise both the hands joining the palms, with fingers upword pointed, the hands in this gesture touch the body lightly somewhere between chest and the forehead. It signifies both greeting and respect.
Who Bows to Whom?
There’s a twist here too, the extended respect and courtesy is demonstrated through the height at which the hands are held, and how low the head hangs. Wai could be demonstrated while sitting, walking or standing. The person who is in a lower position in the social hierarchy first offers Wai to the person who resides in a comperatively higher position. To this, the person who is in a comperatively higher social strata returns the ‘Wai’ with putting their hands somewhere around their chest.
Wait for Your ‘Wai’
So, the next time you visit a Thai friend in their homes, wait for them to introduce you to the other guests. The guests will then be able to gauge your social status relative to their own and will thus decipher who offers Wai to whom and how low do they hang their head.
Don’t worry, they are hardly hanging their heads in shame, all that is pure Thai respect, accept it, return it. And do it with a Thai smile, sure that would win you some hearts in the Land of Smiles.