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Attention Sweden: Be Wary of Committing to the "Wai"

I was amused to read that a Swedish politician is suggesting that all Swedes -- or at least all of Swedish parliament -- should retire the handshake in favor of the traditional Thai greeting.

For the uninitiated, that would be the "wai," a slight, graceful bow performed with clasped hands. The idea is that -- because the wai involves no physical contact -- it's more desirable in the era of swine flu.

Looks easy, right? See, even this hamburger-loving clown can do it. But take it from me, Sweden. You'll want to think long and hard before you adopt the wai and its myriad rules.

You wai to say hello. You wai to show respect. You wai to show you're sorry. You wai when someone hands you a gift, especially cash.

You wai on all these occasions ... except when you don't. In fact, remembering when NOT to wai is the hard part, because a misplaced wai can result in severe social awkwardness.

You don't wai someone younger than you, unless they wai you first. You don't wai your waitress, your taxi driver or anyone in the service industry.  And, when greeting royalty or even your parents on a special occasion (say college graduation or Thai mother's day), you don't wai because it doesn't convey enough respect. You should be prostrating yourself on the floor instead.

I cringe at memories of my first week in Thailand, when I would wai everyone who wai'd me first: the waiter who settled my restaurant bill and the phalanx of girls who greeting diners at posh restaurants.

To offer an analogy, just imagine you're going through the Taco Bell drive-thru and, after the cashier says, "Thanks for choosing Taco Bell," you reach out and offer a hearty handshake. (OK, maybe it's not quite that weird. But it's close.)

None of this is difficult for Thais, who through upbringing are endowed with an internal wai flow chart.

Introduce foreigners, however, and wai-ing often goes wrong.

About a month ago, a grey-haired British man wandered into my local coffee shop, where I'm a regular customer, and ordered a cup to go. When he received his change, he randomly wai'd the coffee clerk, a 23-year-old girl.

She let out a slight shriek and literally averted her eyes. Not only did he wai a clerk, he also wai'd someone much, much younger than him. According to superstition, this can actually cause the younger person to die sooner.

"Big brother!" she said to me in Thai. "Please tell him not to do that!"

The British man was stunned. "Um," I told him, "she says you shouldn't do that. You're actually not supposed to bow for people younger than you. Or cashiers."

"Ah, I see," he replied. "Then please tell her that, where I'm from, we always show respect for women. No matter what."

Nevermind, of course, that he had just done the exact opposite.

Swedish politician guy, are you still with me? The wai, when performed correctly, is quite lovely. But I'm not sure Sweden is really ready to go all the way with the wai.