Does waving a hand mean “no” in Thailand? Body language and hand gestures can sometimes be more confusing than spoken languages — especially internationally.
So, how do Thai people communicate with their bodies?
Most Thai hand gestures are imported from all over the world. The locals use them with facial expressions to convey different messages. However, they seem reluctant to use gestures with elders since this form of communication is considered too casual. They prefer spoken language in such situations.
Despite the lack of original body language and hand gestures, Thailand still has unwritten rules about them. Read on to get an overview of Thai body language culture and non-verbal communication.
What Are the Hand Gestures in Thailand?
As mentioned, Thai original hand gestures are rare. And there’s a reason for that.
In Thai daily interactions, humility, respect, and politeness play a significant role. And these elements are dictated by many factors like age, intimacy, and social status. So, Thai people tend to avoid making impolite gestures.
And unfortunately, most hand gestures — imported and not traditionally Thai — are usually considered too casual and impolite.
Thai people prefer verbal communication. Why? Because the Thai spoken language has distinct levels of politeness in each word. You can express respect and humility by only adding certain words to your sentences. Such a linguistic feature is more convenient than ambiguous hand signals.
However, using words can sometimes be too direct. In such situations, Thai people rely on facial expressions and eye contact more than hand gestures. Nevertheless, there is no strict rule regulating the meaning of all facial and eye movements. As a result, interpreting them can be tricky.
To comprehend someone’s facial expression, you need to know that person to a certain degree. In Thailand, each individual has their own style of facial language. So, personal relationships are paramount.
Of course, this doesn’t mean Thai people don’t use hand gestures at all. They also use it with friends and close relatives. Sometimes, these hand languages can be more convenient too.
You probably already know most of the hand language meanings in Thailand. But to be safe, here are 10 examples of common Thai hand gestures and their meanings.
If you know Thailand, you should be familiar with this hand gesture. Thai people generally use it to greet each other. However, it could be used to say goodbye, express gratitude, and display an apology.
You can perform this hand gesture by clasping your hands on your chest and bowing down. However, like verbal language, there are levels to Wai as well.
You can learn more about Wai here.
2. Hand Wave
A wave of a hand can be used in several situations. You can use it to casually greet and bid farewell to your friends. Or, use it to say no to an offer.
3. Nike Sign
This gesture refers to the act of sticking your index finger and thumbs up like a “tick” sign. It usually means “correct.”
You can dual-wield this gesture without any repercussions. The meaning is still the same.
4. Peace Sign
This refers to an act of sticking your index and middle finger up. Thai people usually show their forehand to the interlocutors with this gesture. However, they sometimes show the backhand — mostly in photo shoots.
In conversation, it conveys a message, “keep up the good work.” Basically, you can send a quick encouragement to people with this gesture.
In photo shoots, peace signs can be used as standard posts. A peace sign will always work whenever you’re unsure which pose to make. It doesn’t have any particular meaning. It just goes well with smiles.
5. Okay Sign
This one is quite universal. And like the rest of the world, it means “ok” in Thailand.
6. Thumbs up
This is a quick way to show approval or say “good job” to someone.
7. Locking Pinkies
This gesture refers to when you lock your pinky with another person. The action indicates a promise. Hence the name “Pinkies promises.”
Most people in Thailand who use this hand gesture are kids and couples. However, it doesn’t mean single adults can’t use it. It might feel a little awkward, but it is still considered adorable.
8. High Five
Do not hesitate to make a high five in Thailand. If your Thai friends notice it, they will never leave you hanging.
Similar to the western context, high fives in Thailand indicate a celebratory moment. In team sports, you will see Thai people do this quite often.
In addition, you can also give a high five when you find your interlocutor has the same opinion on something. For example: loving the same TV shows, books, or music.
Thai people don’t usually shake hands in their daily life. However, when they do, they still preserve the original western meaning to a certain degree.
When Thai people shake hands, it usually indicates the conclusion of a deal. However, the Thai are not that fond of skinship, so they keep their handshake light and quick. A firm shake would work as well but never assert too much force.
And like a high five, you can use a handshake to convey a sense of comradeship. If you find your interlocutor loving the same song or having the same hobby, you can perform a quick handshake with the person.
Other Body Languages in Thailand
Like hand gestures, body language alone is still considered too casual and impolite in Thailand. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use them at all.
Body language emphasizes the meaning of your verbal message, making your communication more effective. So, use them together with your words.
You’re probably familiar with most of them. But here are 5 examples of common body language in Thailand.
Like in many countries, a nod in Thailand signals approval, a positive response, and understanding. However, there are 2 types of nods — downward and upward nods.
A downward nod usually means “yes, of course” or “understood.” You can do it quickly and repeat it many times to reinforce your message. Doing it slowly also sends the same message but with more of an “understood” vibe.
An upward nod is a little bit tricky. It also means “understood.” However, this understanding is more of a realization than a preoccupied knowledge. Basically — when someone explains something new to you, you can display your comprehension with an upward nod. However, do it slowly and don’t repeat it. It looks strange that way.
A Head Shake:
When Thai people pivot their heads left and right, they mean to say “no.” This is quite common internationally. However, it’s actually weird when you think about it.
Many cultural aspects of Thailand can be traced back to India. Like Buddhism, Wai, and Songkran festivals. However, the Indian head shake — which means “yes” — didn’t make it to this country.
The reason is unclear. However, you can assume that Thailand, or Siam in the day, was a cultural hub of the area. So, cultures of many origins are exchanged and mixed in this land.
Like many Asian countries, the Thai bow signifies humility and respect. However, it might be more convenient than you think.
A slight bow can get you far in Thailand. You can use it to greet someone, express your gratitude, and show an apology. Basically, you can utilize a bow as an abbreviated version of Wai.
And with such versatility, you will always see Thai people bow their heads.
This body language is quite tricky to interpret. Even though it has a similar meaning to the rest of the world, you still need to be careful not to make assumptions with arm crossings.
Usually, crossing arms indicates impatience and insecurity in a person. So if your interlocutors cross their arms during a conversation, you can guess that you have offended them somehow.
However, it might not always be such a case in Thailand. Since the country is always heated, many Thais are sensitive to cold weather. So, when they cross their arms, it could simply mean they feel cold.
Even though crossing their legs is not the politest gesture you can make in Thailand, the locals still do it all the time. Why? Because it indicates a sense of intimacy and close relationships.
Usually, crossing legs is disrespectful in Thailand. However, if someone decides to cross their legs in front of you, it could be a sign that they feel comfortable around you. They can let go of the respectful aspect of their culture and lay back a little bit.
So, friends often cross their legs when sitting with each other. Just avoid doing this with elders unless you are familiar with them.
Thai Eye Contact and Facial Expression Tips
Eye contact and facial expression play more significant roles in Thai communication than gestures. They might be subtle but are also effective in indirect opinion exchanges.
You need to pay attention to both of these things in Thailand. Especially when you don’t know your interlocutor well. Why? Because each Thai person has their own set of eyes and facial language.
However, here are the general tips for Thai eye contact and facial expression.
- If you’re not conversing with someone, avoid eye contact with that person.
Looking someone in the eyes can be interpreted as a challenge. Most bar and street fights start that way. So, if you’re not looking for trouble, avoid eye contact with strangers.
- When you apologize, look at the floor.
In many cultures, eye contact signifies sincerity and genuineness. So, it would make sense to keep looking at the interlocutor’s eyes when saying “sorry.” Not in Thailand, though.
Thai people think that you should show remorse and respect when you make an apology. So, keeping your eyes low is the best way to do it.
Knotted eyebrows are usually a bad sign.
This is probably nothing new to you. But it’s still safe to mention it. Thai people can be indirect with how they speak. They rarely voice their disapproval or disagreement, thanks to how they value harmony between people.
So, they will give you a sign when you cross the line. And one of the most common signs is a knotted eyebrow. When you see one, pause and think about what you have said. You might have provoked your interlocutor.
Smile has many meanings.
If Thai people smile at you during a conversation, don’t let your guard down yet. Of course, they could be genuinely pleased with what you say. However, there is a chance that it’s the opposite.
In Thailand, there is something called a “bluff smile.” This kind of smile is used to hide people’s real emotions. And the Thai excel at using them.
4 Hand Gestures to Be Cautious of in Thailand
1. The Middle Finger
This hand gesture is more universal than you thought.
Showing a middle finger in Thailand has the same meaning as in the west. Most Thai people know of it. And they will be offended if you give them one.
So, never sneak a middle finger at anyone thinking they wouldn’t understand. They do.
2. Pointing an Index Finger
Pointing is a sign of power in Thailand. That’s why nobody likes to be pointed at in any situation. It makes them feel like they are being forced to do something.
Nevertheless, pointing at someone might be necessary on many occasions, for example, during an introduction or addressing a third person. In such cases, you should use your whole hand to point. It’s far more polite that way.
3. Hunger Games Pose
This pose refers to raising your hand while sticking out your index, middle, and ring finger. This is a pose that Thai anti-government activists use to express their displeasure toward the national government (similar to what happens in the movie).
Avoid the Hunger Games pose if you don’t want to get involved in Thai politics. Or you will be easily dragged into it.
4. The Head Pat
No matter who you interact with, avoid head patting as much as possible.
For Thai people, the head is the most sacred body part of a person. And touching it can be a serious offense if you’re not close to that person enough.
It might be considered an adorable way to express affection somewhere else. But in Thailand, it’s borderline an insult or even sexual harassment.
Thai Body Languages vs. the World
After reading this far, you must realize that Thai body language is not so quirky. However, the unique thing about it is how the locals use it. They tend to keep their communication in a verbal form where the line between polite and impolite is clear.
However, there’s nothing wrong with using non-verbal communication at all. You only need to be careful not to over-rely on it. Then, you will enjoy a conversation with Thai people with ease.
Like always, if you want to learn more about Thailand, stay with ThaiGuider. You might learn something you never knew about this unique country.