Westerners who are living in Thailand or involved with Thais often receive very mixed messages when it comes to physical contact and personal space. On one hand, all forms of public physical affection between men and women are said to be impolite; on the other, young Thai woman may be sometimes seen walking down the street holding hands, something rarely seen in the west. Attitudes towards both public displays of affection and personal space in Thailand differ greatly from those in the west, so let’s discuss some basics.
Public Displays of Affection:
Despite its infamous reputation for being a hub for international sex tourism,Thailandis still in many ways a very conservative country, and Thai attitudes towards physical contact between men and women reflect this. When in public, kissing between men and women is considered completely inappropriate, even in cosmopolitan cities like Bangkok. Hand-holding and standing with arms around each others’ waists is typically fine in larger cities, but may still be frowned upon in more conservative areas of the country (it’s usually better to be safe than sorry).
Physical Forms of Greetings:
While handshakes, hugs, and kisses on cheeks are acceptable forms of greeting in the West, Thais frown on physical greetings between both strangers and between the sexes. While handshakes are considered a formal form of greeting the West, many Thais may find the physical contact inappropriate and awkward. In nearly all situations, business or casual, the traditional wai is an acceptable form of greeting.
Casual Physical Contact Between Sexes
In the West, shaking hands, patting the arms, and other small forms of contact between acquaintances of different genders are considered commonplace. In Thailand, they will likely be considered awkward and invasive, and should be avoided.
While westerners are typically unruffled by kissing in public, handshakes, and contact between genders, they are usually very possessive of their personal space. Depending on their country of origin, a westerner may prefer to maintain a distance of 2-4 feet between himself and his peers, even among friends. Beyond greetings, physical contact between friends and peers may make many westerners uncomfortable or may signal a romantic interest. Thais, by contrast, require very little personal space, especially among friends, though they will not greet each other with hugs.