Understanding the peculiar personal space definition of a foreign culture is critical for the success of a trip there. Knowing how to speak with a denizen while standing at a proper distance is vital; knowing how not to touch is even more urgent. However, sometimes it won’t help, as in Bolivia, where the concept is unknown; bumping into complete strangers while walking on the street, is almost the norm. But that’s the exception to the rule. In sharp contrast, in Thailand personal space is particularly important. Being aware of one’s body is essential, as these graceful people prove with every one of their moves. Close physical proximity is not accepted, except for places like a crowded bus or Skytrain car; even then, clear rules apply. This paragraph was easy, but how close is too close? Can we measure that?
An example that would make sense to Western readers is a Starbucks’ line. People stand there pretty close to each other, but without touching. Yet, if someone makes a sudden movement, like turning around to take a look at that lovely new pumpkin seed cake, he may touch his neighbor. This is acceptable in the USA and Europe; more often than not it wouldn’t even qualify to an "I’m sorry." This common situation would make a Thai uncomfortable. This is too close, especially with a clumsy foreigner making unexpected moves all over his personal space. Step back one step; the pumpkin seed cake is not running away from you.
Then, it is essential to remember that to Thais, the head is the most sacred part of the body. Touching the head of someone else is almost taboo. This must be understood to the extent of planning to avoid possible errors beforehand. For example, many trekkers would attach an extra pair of shoes to their backpack. While walking quickly in a crowded place, the shoes may shake wildly and touch the head of an innocent passerby. This is a major transgression, since feet are considered offensive. Hiding the shoes within the backpack is the wise approach. The same applies to all movements that may be interpreted as an aggression to the personal space of the person next to you. Do not reach for something over another person’s head; never walk over somebody. Even if you apologize properly afterwards, you would be tagged as a "clumsy pushy farang" (this is the local name for Western foreigners.)
What about a handshake? Handshakes are not part of the Thai culture. They may be used while dealing with foreigners, but not necessarily. The typical Thai greeting is the wai, which obviously avoids physical contact. The wai looks like a prayer; hands are brought together in front of the face and a small bow is performed. The event is quite complex; a younger person is expected to wai first. Then, there are various degrees of wai-ing, corresponding to the amount of honor being given to the other person. Foreigners would be forgiven for mistaking this. However, the best is avoiding extremes. Do not wai with your hands in front of your chest or above your head. Keeping them in front of the chin is about right for daily use. In most cases, the bow should be light, reminding a typical Western affirmative nod.
Despite this being rather straightforward, disasters occur. During my last visit to the Kingdom of the Smiles, I was standing in a line for one of the best Khaosan Road coffee shops. Ahead of me was a Thai girl, and ahead of her a Japanese tourist who obviously was for the first time in Thailand. In an attempt to open a conversation, he asked her in English:
"What’s a pumpkin seed flavored coffee?"
"I don’t know, I drink only farang flavored coffee," the girl answered and added a charmingly silly giggle. Her joke was acceptable if understanding that "farang" is not only the name for a foreigner, but also for "guava" (Portuguese were among the first "farang" in Thailand and they brought guavas to the country).
The tourist reaction was chilling. He stretched his right hand towards her and ruffled her hair while laughing exaggeratedly. It was awesome to see how all other Thais in the shop went quiet and kept looking at the now embarrassed girl. Without saying a word, she quickly left the establishment.
"What happened?" He asked me.