thai etiquette

Thai Etiquette: How to Show Respect & Why It’s Important

The concept of etiquette doesn’t transcend borders. What’s polite in the USA could be audacious in Thailand or other countries. So, as a foreigner, you should at least learn how to show basic respect in Thailand.

Respect is shown in Thailand in two significant ways: verbal and non-verbal. Showing respect is a form of communication, so Thai people use their language as a tool to display civility. They also rely on non-verbal etiquette to demonstrate politeness, such as bowing their heads, known as the traditional ‘Wai’ greeting.

The key to mastering Thai etiquette is to pay attention. Recognizing your words and behavior would get you far in this country. Read on to dive deeper into the depth of Thai etiquette and respectful cultures.

How to show respect in Thailand?

If you have been to Thailand, you would realize that seniority is a big deal in this country. Young people will be careful with their speech and behavior with their seniors. Why? Because that is how they show respect in Thailand.

And that doesn’t end with just senior members of society. Some people with certain societal statuses are treated with respect, regardless of age. These include doctors, nurses, teachers, monks, and the royal family.

As mentioned, displaying respect can be divided into 2 types: verbal and non-verbal.

Verbal display of respect:

The concept of respect is so influential in Thai culture that it even takes root in the language.

Since the topic deals heavily with linguistic features of the Thai language, it might be a bit confusing. But basically, all you need to know is that there are sets of words that are appropriate to use with certain interlocutors. You can look at these sets as “politeness levels” of speech.

Level 1: Friends and close juniors

When conversing with your friends or close juniors, you can use almost any words you like. It won’t sound disrespectful.

For example, you can say “I” in Thai in many ways. And in this level, you can use “กู” (Koo), which is the crudest and rudest way. Many people consider “กู” (Koo) a curse word. But if you’re talking with a friend, it’s alright. You can curse or use slang as much as you want.

In addition, you can even speak in mixed languages — like Thai-English, or Thai-Chinese. If you and your friends understand both languages, it could be more convenient to converse that way.

Level 2: Same age or junior acquaintance

Even though Thai culture focuses on paying respect to the elders, it is also crucial that you show respect to those of the same age and younger. Especially those who you don’t know very well.

At this level, use a “politer” version of the words. 

Many words have a synonym with a politer implication. For example, instead of using the crude “กู” (Koo) for “I” as in the previous level, you should opt for “ฉัน” (Chan). It’s more polite. And politeness is the best way to show respect in Thailand.

You can try a mixed language approach at this level. It could tighten your relationship faster. But remember that it could backfire horribly if your interlocutor doesn’t speak your second language.

And please avoid curse words here, too. Slang is still acceptable, but keep it at a minimum.

Level 3: Elders and respectable figures

Now. Here’s the highlight of Thai respect culture. At this level, keep your speech as polite as possible.

For example, you need to use the even politer form of “I” when you talk to your elders. If you are a male, use “ผม” (Phom). If you are a female, use “หนู” (Noo).

Needless to say, you must avoid using curse words here. Slang is also strongly discouraged. Of course, mixed language is out the window too. Keep your speech Thai only, or else you will appear disrespectful.

Level Special: Monks and royalties

In Thai culture, Monks and royalties are given special status. So, you use entirely different vocabulary sets to speak with them.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you speak a different language. You still speak Thai, but some words are substituted with their “grander” counterparts.

With monks, some words are substituted with what the locals call “Monk words.” These words are usually of Balinese or Sanskrit origin. For example, you usually say “กิน” (kin) for “eat.” But if you want to say “the monk eats…,” you use the word “ฉัน” (Chan — coincidentally looks and sounds like “I” in the second level)

With royalties, most of the words are substituted with “royal words.” For example, “eat.” If you want to say “the king eats…”, you will use the word “เสวย” (Sawei) instead of the normal “กิน” (kin).

Ending words

In the Thai language, there are words you can attach to the end of your sentences to make them politer. These words are “ครับ” (Krab) and “ค่ะ” (Ka).

If you are a male, you use “Krab.”

If you are a female, you use “Ka”

You should always add these ending words at speech level 2 and above. Or else, your speech will be too crude and disrespectful.

Non-verbal display of respect:

Some theories suggest that 70% of human communication is non-verbal. (Source) That means you can show respect to people without saying a word.

And in Thai culture, there are hundreds of ways to nonverbally show respect. And here are 5 noteworthy examples.

1. Wai

Wai is widely known as the traditional greeting of Thailand. It is an action that requires you to bow your head to other people. In other words, this greeting forces you to show respect to others.

You can perform a Wai by clasping your hand on your chest and bow. However, there are many levels of Wai. Each of them conveys a different level of respect to your interlocutors. So, that means you can show deep respect to people the moment you meet them.

▸ READ MORE about Thai Wai

2. Bow when walking past

Bowing is a great way to show respect in general. So, do it every time you walk past the elders you are familiar with.

Generally, you would greet the elder the first time you meet them that day. However, in a second or later chance meeting, you can skip the greeting and opt for a bow as you walk past. It’s much more convenient but still respectful.

3. Sit down when the elder is seated

When you converse with elders, stay on the same or lower “level” than them.

This concept might be weird for Westerners, but most Thai elders take this seriously. If you’re talking with seated elders, you must take a seat too. Why? Because if you keep standing, it means your head’s level is above the elders’. And it will look like you are talking down on them.

Now, a question might arise. If you were a tall person, what would you do? Your head level would still be higher than the elder — sitting or standing. In that case, bow a bit. You don’t have to bow so deep that your head is below theirs. Just enough to convey that you still respect them even though you are taller.

4. Don’t point at the elders

Pointing at someone is considered quite rude in Thailand. But sometimes, it’s necessary. Like during an introduction or addressing a third person.

So, if you have to point at your elders, use your whole hand and fingers. This way, you will appear more respectful and polite. And this is not exclusive to elders. You can do the same for anyone — younger or the same age. The elder is just a must.

You can learn more about Thai body language and hand gestures here.

5. Prostrate

Prostrate is quite rare nowadays in Thailand. However, it is the most effective way to show utter respect.

Mostly, Thai people reserve prostration for Buddha’s images. You can perform it by following these 7 steps.

  1. Kneel and sit on your heels.
  2. Clasp your hand on your chest.
  3. Bow until your thumbs touch between your eyebrows.
  4. Keep bowing until your hands touch the floor.
  5. Unclasp your hands and put them flat on the floor together with your forehead
  6. Lift your torso up straight while reclasping your hands
  7. Repeat steps 3-6 two more times.

Why is respect so important in Thai culture?

Thai respect culture is heavily influenced by Chinese Confucianism. And that is no surprise at all if you look at the close-knitted relationship between Thailand and China.

Confucianism has many core teachings. And one of the more prominent topics is the teaching of respect. (Source)

People should always respect and admire their ancestors. Without them, you would have never been born. That’s why the elders in Confucious society sit at the higher spot on the social hierarchy.

The concept of respect in Confucianism reflects a person’s morality. Disrespectful and impolite behaviors were traits of “bad” people. On the other hand, if you were always polite and acted nicely with others, you would be seen as a “good” person.

In Confucianism society, living as a “bad” person was tough. You would be verbally humiliated daily, and nobody would want to associate with you. Basically, you could get excommunicated if you acted too disrespectful.

However, time changes, and society changes. Confucianism has loosened its grip on Thailand. Nevertheless, you can still see its remnants in the form of Thai people’s politeness and respectful nature.

Of course, you cannot say that Thailand is like this because of Confucianism exclusively. There are other factors like Buddhism, monarchy, and patriarchy. But you can’t deny the impact of Confucianism on Asia as a whole as well.

Now that you understand the big picture of Thai respect culture, it’s time to look at something more practical.

Thai etiquette tips for travelers

1. Learn the Wai

This is probably already on your to-learn list.

Needless to say, you should at least know how to traditionally greet people when visiting another country. And for Thailand, it’s Wai.

Showing the locals that you care is an effective way to show respect. So, do your research, practice your bow, rinse and repeat.

Check out this article on the 3+1 levels of Wai and their meaning.

2. Bow a lot

As mentioned, bowing is excellent for showing respect in general. So, if you are unsure how to be respectful in particular situations, just bow.

Introduce yourself? Bow. Saying Thank you? Bow. Saying Sorry? Also bow.

Bowing is the most flexible body language in many Asian countries. And it works well in Thailand too.

3. Keep your feet on the floor

Thai people consider the feet the most disrespectful body part. And it makes sense if you think about it.

When you sit or stand, your feet are the lowest part of the body. That’s why Thai people tend to keep their feet low.

Do not put your feet on the seat (or table) when sitting on a chair.

You should never step on any item with your feet — except if they are meant to be, like a rug.

You should never point at anything with your feet.

In short, the only appropriate actions for your feet are to stand, walk, and run. So, keep your feet down.

4. Never reject gifts from elders

Sometimes, elders can be… weird with their gifts. They might hand you a wrapped present box containing an item you have never imagined you’d need. In this situation, just smile and accept it.

In Thailand, saying “no” to elders is quite rude in general. But saying “no” to their gift is on another level of disrespect.

You can use the “Mai Pen Rai” phrase (which means “it’s okay”) a couple of times. But in the end, you should ultimately accept it.

▸ READ MORE about Dos and Don’ts in Thailand

Thai etiquette: Thai attention

You might feel that some aspects of Thai etiquette are ridiculous. However, they are just a result of a different worldview than yours.

Etiquette doesn’t transcend borders. So, you must be attentive to all the minute details to be “civilized” in other countries. Thailand just happens to be extreme with these details.

Learn Thai culture and pay attention. The rest is a matter of practice. Then, you can enjoy Thailand like never before.

Like always, if you want to discover more about Thailand, stay guided by ThaiGuider. You might learn something you never knew about this unique country.

▸ CHECK OUT our Complete Guide on Thai Culture


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