Folk Gesture: ไหว้ or Wai

Translation: No literal translation, for it is rather just a coined physical gesture.

Context: In Thailand, the informant states that when greeting family members or friends, in some cases even strangers, one should clasp their hands together, similar to how you would for prayer, place your hands near your nose bridge, and then bow your head. Ever since the informant was a little girl, this has been a gesture that expresses a formal greeting, and it is a sign of respect. “Wai” can be used when greeting someone or departing from them, and it is especially important in expressing piety. T.S. describes that as a little girl, whenever she would forget to greet her grandparents or other elders with “Wai,” should be met with a scolding. Not expressing “Wai” to certain individuals can earn you the title of one without manners. The informant believes that the origins of “Wai” must be tied to the rise of Buddhism since monks have been utilizing the motion for centuries, as they always want to express maximum gratitude and respect. When greeting a monk, it is even enforced that a different form of “Wai” should be used, one that has you place your thumbs to your forehead rather than your nose bridge.

Analysis: Forms of folk gesture can be used to solidify respect amongst a group of people, consolidating interconnectedness and overall companionship. The “Wai” is a gesture that brings the Thais together under a common practice, helping the nation cement a sense of peace within their foundation. The “Wai” is also a way to teach children and early generations to respect their higher-ups and elders, for this creates a stable pious relationship that prevents extended rebellion as they grow up. Speaking from personal experience, there are similar modes of expression within Latin American cultures, specifically the Caribbean. Growing up, I was exposed to “Biendicion,” a saying that holds very similar significance to “Wai.” When saying “Biendicion,” one must connect their cheek to the person’s cheek that they wish to greet. Similarly, as T.S. described, not using this phrase to elders within your own family can be seen as an act deserving of scolding and correction. Even as an adult, one must use it to those in the generations above them, so the phrase never dies off.