WAI to the New Normal

The world stopped and panic broke out when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern on January 30, 2020. Less than two months later, it was labeled a pandemic. Since then, our world has never been the same, with millions across the globe succumbing to the disease and dying.

In some parts of the world, like in Polynesia, the Maoris traditionally greet each other by pressing the nose against that of another person. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, the kissing of the hands of elders is considered a sign of respect, good manners, and upbringing. In cosmopolitan cities of Asia and in the west, hugging is de rigueur. Meanwhile, in the corporate arena almost anywhere in the world, the handshake serves as the ceremonial symbol that a deal is done.

But all these, whether in the name of cordiality or formality, are about to change, as the threat of COVID-19 across the globe intensifies.

Highly contagious

Current evidence suggests that the virus, which is airborne, spreads mainly between people who are in close contact with each other, typically within a one-meter range. People may also become infected by touching surfaces that have been contaminated by the virus and then themselves

According to the WHO, COVID-19 can live for hours or days on a surface, depending on factors such as sunlight, humidity, and the type of surface. It is possible that a person can become infected with COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or eyes.

In order to curb the spread of the virus, governments around the world follow basic precautions recommended by the WHO. The wearing of a mask has become part of the new normal, along with other safety and health protocols such as social distancing, the frequent washing of the hands, and disinfection. Mass vaccination, or inoculating at least 70% of the population, is seen as the most promising solution to achieving herd immunity. While still waiting for a sufficient supply of vaccines, high proportions of the population now have to contend with social distancing, which also means avoiding physical contact with anyone.

Still connected

But even before this pandemic, other no-contact gestures were being used by people to greet friends and show respect and reverence. Some have been in existence for many years and the current situation provides an opportunity to assess the greater purpose and meaning of each of these gestures.

In Japan, bowing is the most recognized no-contact greeting. It involves the bending of the body and lowering of the head to convey reverence. The degree to which you bend communicates your message. To say hello, the torso should be bent from the hips by 15 degrees; to honor someone superior or to greet a client,30 degrees; and to show your deepest sorrow, respect or apologies, 45 degrees.

Then, we have the Namaste greeting from Nepal and India. It is a sign of respect and is used by men and women when meeting members of the same or opposite sex. It is similar to the praying gesture of folding the hands together performed before an image of a deity at a temple.

This form of greeting dates back several thousands of years. Doing namaste to another person is considered a sign of respect and gratitude, humility and reverence.

With the current global health concerns, a massive comeback for these traditional greetings is expected.

Miss Universe contestant Chalita Suansane of Thailand during the national costume presentation in the preliminary competition of the Miss Universe pageant at the Mall of Asia arena in Manila in 2017.(Photo by TED ALJIBE / AFP)

Way of the wai

Similar to the Japanese bow and the Indian and Nepalese Namaste is the traditional Thai wai, which is considered by many as one of the most graceful gestures of greeting.

The wai involves putting your palms together, holding them up to the middle of your chest, and slightly bending your head so that the fingertips are just touching your chin. To return the greeting, the other person merely does the same.

There are rules to consider. The wai is usually offered to those in higher social standing and not given to someone younger except when returning a wai.

In order to convey a higher level of respect, the wai uses a deeper bowing of the head while placing the pressed hands at different levels: at chest level for a standard greeting; face level for a colleague, elder, or a superior; and hairline level for a monk. For the King of Thailand, the citizens bow deeply and place their hands high, with the thumbs touching the top of their heads.

The wai does not require any body contact, which makes it a safe and acceptable alternative to handshaking.

Taking a cue from a comic strip featuring alternatives to handshakes and other contact greetings, a WHO senior official earlier suggested the adoption of the Thai wai as a form of greeting in the new normal.

We care

The current COVID-19 crisis has changed how we connect with others. No-contact traditional greetings from different countries and cultures now serve a greater purpose and meaning. As we become dependent on what we choose to do while navigating the new normal and contemplating on how to stay connected, traditional greetings have become an even stronger expression of caring.


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