Thailand promotes the ‘wai’ as safe alternative to handshakes

Biden and Sanders bumped elbows, while athletes are bumping fists. But devotees of Thai culture believe the ‘wai,’ the traditional palms-together gesture, is the safest, as well as the most charming alternative to handshakes or greetings involving physical contact during the global coronavirus pandemic.

Perhaps the first and most famous figure to adopt the wai has been Prince Charles of the United Kingdom. Videos of the heir to the British throne greeting officials with the gesture have gone viral.

At Brighton College in England, teachers asked their Thai students to teach the wai to their classmates.

“We don’t want to lose the warmth of [a handshake] welcome so we asked three Thai children to explain how we can use the Thai wai as a model for the future as we seek to play our part in slowing the spread of the virus,” Brighton Prep School Headmaster John Weeks told the Daily Mail newspaper.

Others seen using the gesture include President Emmanuel Macron of France and Liverpool footballer Steven Gerrard. In the United States, Daniel Parker, an infectious disease epidemiologist and demographer at U.C. Irvine, told the Los Angeles Times that he prefers the Thai wai, which he described as a slight bow and palms pressed together prayer-style.

Some observers have claimed, however, that the gesture is actually the Namaste greeting used in India and Nepal, as both are similar, and Indian and Southeast Asian cultures share some traits. Wai-style greetings are also used in Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia.

In Indonesia, the wai-style greeting is found in parts of Java and called the sembah. Malaysians and people in Brunei deploy the gesture as a sign of thanks.

No matter what country or culture those using the wai believe it came from, all agree that handshakes should be avoided at this time.

Photo courtesy of Consular Office, Royal Thai Embassy, Washington, D.C.