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Thai Etiquette

Thai value systems regarding dress, social behavior, religion, authority figures, and sexuality are much more conservative than those of the average Westerner. Although the Thais are an extremely tolerant and forgiving race of people blessed with a gentle religion and an easygoing approach to life, visitors would do well to observe proper social customs to avoid embarrassment and misunderstanding.

Thai people are extremely polite and their behavior is tightly controlled by etiquette, much of it based on their Buddhist religion. It is a non confrontational society, in which public dispute or criticism is to be avoided at all costs. To show anger or impatience or to raise your voice is s sign of weakness and lack of mental control. It is also counter productive, since the Thai who will smile, embarrassed by your outburst of anger or frustration is far less likely to be helpful than if you had kept better control of your emotions.

Revealing clothing, worn by either men or women, is a little disgusting to most Thais. Short shorts, low cut dresses and T-shirts and skimpy bathing suits come into this category. In temples, long trousers or skirts must be worn, and monks should on no account be touched in any way by women. Shoes should always be removed when entering temples and private houses. For this reason, most Thais wear slip-on shoes to avoid constantly tying and untying laces.

The head is the most sacred part of the body, so should not be touched. The feet are the least sacred, so when sitting they should not point at anyone - most Thais sit on the floor with their feet tucked under their bodies behind them. To point, particularly with foot, is extremely insulting.

Avoid touching Thai people, it is too intimate a gesture and an invasion of personal space.

When eating, it is considered very rude to blow your nose or to lick you fingers. The right hand must be used to pick up food eaten with the fingers.

Clothing from the lower parts of the body should never be left anywhere in a high position. This applies particularly to socks and underwear, but also to shorts and skirts. This is the case even when washing and drying clothes. Thais have two clothes lines - a high one for most clothes and a low one for underwear and socks.

Thais do not traditionally shake hand, the wai is the usual greeting. The hands are placed together as in prayer, and raised upwards towards the face, while the head is lowered in a slight bow. The height to which the hands should be raised depends on the status of the person you are waiing. In the case of monks, dignitaries and old people the hands are raised to the bridge of the nose, with equals only as far as the chest. Young people and inferiors are not waid, but nodded slightly to. You will be regarded as a little foolish should you wai to them.

When you consider that shaking hands, and kissing, are perhaps the easiest means of passing germs, the wai, is in fact a suitable greeting.

It is easy, entering a foreign culture for the first time, to make mistakes in etiquette. If you do so, just smile, wai the person you may have offended, and you are forgiven.

Thais are famous for their smiles.  The Thai smile can say many things. Thais smile when they are happy, amused, embarrassed, uncertain, wrong, annoyed or furious. As westerners, we are not generally able to interpret the type of smile we are receiving but be aware that it may not mean what you think it means. 

Modest dress
A clean and conservative appearance is absolutely necessary when dealing with border officials, customs clerks, local police, and bureaucrats. A great deal of ill feeling has been generated by travelers who dress immodestly. When in doubt, look at the locals an dress as they do.

Shorts are considered improper and low-class attire in Thailand, only acceptable for schoolchildren, street beggars, and common laborers …not wealthy tourists! Except at beach resorts, you should never wear skimpy shorts, halter tops, low-cut blouses, or anything else that will offend the locals. Long slacks and a collared shirt are recommended for men in urban environments. Women should keep well covered. Swim-wear is only acceptable on the beach.

Face is very important in Thailand. Candor and emotional honesty - qualities highly prized in some Western societies - are considered embarrassing and counterproductive in the East. Never lose your temper or raise your voice no matter how frustrating or desperate the situation. Only patience, humor, and jai yen ( cool heart ) bring results in Thailand.

The use of the word 'heart'( jai ) is very common in the Thai language, here are but a few examples; jai lorn - angry, nam jai - feelings, nork jai - unfaithful ( adulterous ) jai dee - good hearted, jai dum - black hearted, 

Personal space
Thai anatomy has its own special considerations. Thais believe that the head - the most sacred part of the body - is inhabited by the kwan, the spiritual force of life. Never pat a Thai on the head even in the friendliest of circumstances. Standing over someone older, wiser, or more enlightened than yourself - is also considered rude behavior since it implies social superiority. As a sign of courtesy, lower your head as you pass a group of people. When in doubt, watch the Thais.

Conversely, the foot is considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body. The worst possible insult to a Thai is to point your unholy foot at his sacred head. Keep your feet under control; fold them underneath when sitting down, don't point them toward another person, and never place your feet on a coffee table.

The left hand is also unclean and should not be used to eat, receive gifts, or shake hands. Aggressive stances such as crossed arms or waving your arms are also consider boorish.

A graceful welcome
Thailand's traditional form of greeting is the wai, a lovely prayer-like gesture accompanied with a little head nodding. Social status is indicated by the height of your wai and depth of your bow: inferiors initiate the wai, while superiors return the wai with just a smile, under no circumstances should you wai waitresses, children, or clerks-this only makes you look ridiculous! Save your respect for royalty, monks, and immigration officials.

The 'wai' can be used to great effect on foreigners. Imagine if you will that you have just arrived from a delayed 12 hour flight, you are hot, tired, and somewhat short tempered. You arrive at your hotel to be greeted by the beautiful 'wai', this graceful unexpected gesture can easily dispel your short temper, making you content ( sabai jai ) 

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