What do Thai hand gestures mean?

01 December 2016

What do Thai hand gestures mean?

When traveling in a different country, one should always try to familiarize ourselves with some basics around the culture. Cultural differences will always exist, but you can try to avoid accidentally offending someone by learning some fundamentals.

The most common gesture you'll see in Thailand is hands held together in front of the chest. You'll see this whenever someone says hello, goodbye or thank you to you. “Wai” is a gesture of respect, politeness and gratitude. The higher and closer the hands are to the face and the lower the bow, the more respect is being shown.

Respect is important in Thai culture, as you'll see. For example, sitting above an older person can be considered rude, as is pointing at someone with your finger. If you need to do so try to gesture with your whole hand.

Also important in Thailand is to never point your feet at someone or at a Buddha statue, as the feet are considered dirty. Do not put your feet on desks, chairs and so on. Shoes should be taken off before entering temples (wats) and some houses or stores.

Additionally, never touch someone's head, as the head is considered holy. In general Thai culture is not a very touchy-feely one, so do not go around touching people you do not know. Hugging, kissing and even handshaking is very uncommon when greeting someone in Thailand.

Hands clasped together in front of the chest is a sign of respect in Thailand

In general you should use your right hand for handing things to people, gesturing and so on, as the left hand can be considered dirty (traditionally it was considered the hand to be used for “toilet functions”).

Standing around with your hands on your hips can also be seen as impolite, as it indicates impatience. When you are waiting for a shopkeeper try to remember to keep your hands by your sides. When paying, try to straighten out the bills before handing them to the shopkeeper.

As in many other cultures, staring at people is considered rude and should be avoided. Direct, prolonged eye contact can also be seen an impolite and intimidating and should therefore be avoided.

A gesture of a circle with the thumb and index finger (commonly known as the “OK sign”) is a sign of understanding. The V sign or victory sign (making a V with your middle and index fingers) is similar to Western countries, indicates winning, cheering or success.

Putting your thumb, index finger and little finger up with your palm facing away from you indicates “I love you”. Similarly, putting your thumbs and index fingers together in the shape of a heart in front of your heart/chest also indicates love or sympathy.

Placing your palms together on your lap, on top of each other with your thumbs touching, is the gesture of “samadhi” and is the way many Thai monks in Theravada Buddhism meditate (as opposed to hands on the knees popularized in many images).

Hopefully this guide will make you feel a bit more comfortable traveling in Thailand. Like our Facebook page or Pinterest for more on Thailand and Thai culture and customs.

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