One of the features of traditional Thai society has been politeness. The Land of Smiles gains its name from the polite way that Thais greet others. These qualities extended into the hospitality industry with much success. After getting off one of those long-haul flights from Europe or North America, and finding someone at the reception desk with a warm smile did wonders for the tourism industry.
Among the Thais the wai has been a common way of paying respect. Rather than shaking hands, the Thai press their palms and fingers together and raise them nose level as if offering a prayer. This is done to show respect. Juniors wai elders. Students wai their teachers and parents. Employees wai their bosses. Everyone wais a monk. And so it goes.
Related closely with this idea of respect, is the Thai expession kreng jai (literally translated as “Awesome Heart”). Kreng jai illustrates a characteristic that runs deep in Thai culture. In a system where social rank and class play an important role, showing kreng jai or a little bit of fear or awe to the powerful, those higher on the social ladder has long been expected. If you are powerful, you wait for the other person to wai you first. And receiving that wai gives you face. A large face as other witnesses someone perform an act that appears as a submission.
But that was then. By ‘then’ I mean some years ago.
What about Thailand as we draw to near the end of 2009? It seems some people have stopped offering the wai to members of parliament. A memorandum has been sent to agencies under the Secretariat of the House of Representative reminding officials of their obligation to wai elected representatives. Representatives are complaining they aren’t getting sufficient respect. Of course, the lack of respect is a long ways from an incident where an Iraqi journalist tossed his shoes at President George W. Bush, but from a Thai point of view, for a member of parliament not to receive a wai from other officials in government is, well, not all that different having a sandal tossed at him or her.
So far there is no call for a piece of legislation requiring officials or others to wai members of parliament. But, according to The Bangkok Post, one member of parliament sought to remind officials that officials should follow tradition by extending a wai to MPs as a show of respect. There has been back and forth on whether the memorandum amounted to an order requiring officials to wai MPs. Ordering respect is a little bit like ordering loyalty and love. Certain things are simply very difficult to mandate. I suspect that respect is one of those things.
Perhaps respect isn’t just what it used to be. The smiles found in the Land of Smiles are now less frequent than before. And if the wai is also on the endangered list of cultural artifacts, it may be that Thailand will join the ranks of other cultures where social status alone doesn’t carry an obligation that the lower ranks must show respect. A person’s accomplishments, talent, expertise, kindness, thoughtfulness, compassion—the list goes on—might be a substituted basis for extending a show of respect. But a wai out of habit based on the other person’s age and social rank may belong to another era. Think of it as the golden era of polite, civilized and regimented society. Everyone knew their proper place. And everyone performed their class rituals without being ordered to do so.
What the memorandum doesn’t document is how the Thai social obligations and network of relationships guaranteed a gesture like a wai and the withholding of the wai may be the green shoots of different social, economic, and political forces, a people’s perceptions shift on who is worthy of respect.