Touching and greeting habits differ widely around the world. In some countries people greet each other by shaking hands, in others they kiss each other on the cheek (one, two, or three times, depending on the country).
Elsewhere people hug each other, or in others they put their hands together in front of their chest (Thailand), and in others they rub noses (Eskimos). This can lead to surprising encounters.
Once I was traveling in Mexico, and I met a woman from Spain. Like me, she was backpacking around the country. We spent a few days hiking and sightseeing together. Then we both continued on our separate ways.
When we said our good byes, she kissed me on the cheeks, and I hugged her. Both of us were a little surprised and uncomfortable.
Kissing on the cheeks is a normal way of greeting in several European countries, whereas hugging is quite a normal exchange among friends in the US and increasingly amongst Europeans. However in the US, one does not kiss on the cheeks when we greet someone, and in Spain people apparently don’t hug casual friends.
Later on, I moved to Thailand, and again I had to learn different touching habits. In Thailand, touching is an interesting subject.
Girls often walk around hand in hand, and men sometimes put their arm around the shoulder of an another man in a casual way. In social gatherings Thais often have body contact, but only in a casual way.
In North America it would be considered quite strange to see two women walking around holding hands, or a man with an arm around the shoulder of another. In social settings we generally avoid body contact.
Two kinds of touches are considered acceptable in the US: hand shakes, and sometimes a hug.
Hugs can be a quick little slap on the back, or it could be really heartfelt among friends, or it might be in a situation where we console someone who is sad or grieving.
In Thailand, hugging or kissing in public is a no-no.
But in Thailand the casual touching does not include hugs. Actually hugging is not done here and is considered very inappropriate. Thais don’t hug each other at all and foreigners who hug in public draw disapproving looks.
Men and women do not hold hands in public, and kissing in public is seen as strange or even offensive.
The casual touch is okay, even more so than in the US, but any meaningful, heartfelt way of touching is not okay. Also touching someone’s head is seen as very inappropriate.
Until western habits gained a foothold in Thailand, kissing amongst lovers did not exist either. Instead Thais smelled each other’s cheeks.
Western-style handshakes are not appropriate either. Instead, Thais put the palms of their hands together and bow slightly, depending on their social status. This is called a ‘wai’.
One way of touching is quite common in Thailand, and that is Thai Massage. In the professional massage setting, touch is enjoyed and appreciated.
It is also quite common to see women give each other a little neck and shoulder massage during the work day. Men, however, don’t normally do that.
In Thai Massage, social taboos are suspended.
It is interesting to note that Thai Massage is a rather touch-intensive system of bodywork. There is quite a lot of body contact between the client and the therapist.
Actually, the fact is that in Thai Massage there is a lot more physical contact than in western massage styles. However in the setting of a Thai Massage session all those social restrictions and taboos are temporarily suspended.
Not all touching in massage is of the professional variety.
You need to be aware that in Thailand, like in most Asian countries as well, massage is sometimes offered to male clients with a ‘happy ending’ as its conclusion. So you cannot automatically assume that all massage in Thailand is strictly professional in the Western sense, however it IS professional and expected for some Thais.
But it is easy to find shops where you can get a clean, legitimate, and enjoyable massage. Here touching with lots of physical contact is totally accepted without anyone feeling uneasy about it leading to a sexual conclusion.
But the very second the massage is over, don’t even think of hugging or touching the therapist in any way! This would be considered very inappropriate.
Touching habits in Thailand are slowly changing.
Keep in mind that touching habits in Thailand are quite different from our western ways. However nowadays there are some Thais who have spent a lot of time in the western world. They are much more comfortable with hand shakes or even a hug.
Also the young generation is gradually relaxing those taboos. You can sometimes see young couples in the big cities holding hands. But to be on the safe side, in general the best advice is to avoid touching Thais in any way.
If you want to be touched in Thailand, you can sidestep those taboos by treating yourself to a Thai Massage or oil massage which is available everywhere for just a few dollars per hour. This is one of the great luxuries of living in Thailand.
A good Thai Massage feels great, is very therapeutic, and you won’t have to worry about any cultural taboos and restrictions.