The Indian Head Shake


I’ve never been to India before. But every time I meet an Indian here in the United States, I can’t help but notice that they have a very unique and friendly way to shake their heads in agreement―as well as in disagreement―with what others say.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please watch this video:

I never really understood the meaning of that head shake, but I always thought that there was more to it than I could imagine. I finally decided to do some research and tell you guys a little bit about it.

First, the Indian head shake is also known as the Indian head bobble or head wobble because it resembles the movement of bobble head dolls.

In addition to multiple names, it also has multiple meanings. Depending on the context, the head shake can mean “yes,” “no,” “ok” or “I understand.” It can also be used as a way to acknowledge someone’s presence or as an encouragement.

Although it seems that people all over India wobble their heads, the gesture is more prominent in the south. In addition, not all head bobbles are created equal; people wobble their heads differently in different parts of the country.

Foreigners tend to label the Indian head shake as confusing and ambiguous. However, from what I understand, Indians themselves have no problem distinguishing the meaning of their compatriots’ head shakes, especially when they’re accompanied by words or other nonverbal cues.

This episode of Outsourced shows how foreigners can be puzzled by the head bobble:

It’s still taboo in India to say “no” to requests from superiors or to disagree with an elder. Therefore, in situations like these, the head bobble is a creative way to say “no” without really saying “no.” It’s also a nice and polite way to disagree with people without offending them or disturbing social harmony.

I’ve heard that the head bobble is highly infectious. I can’t wait to go to India, learn to distinguish the different contextual meanings and, maybe, even pick up the head bobble myself! :)

Have you seen someone head bobbling before? What do you think about this Indian custom? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Read this in Portuguese: O Abanar de Cabeça Indiano


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7 responses to “The Indian Head Shake

    • Thanks for commenting! I’m glad you enjoyed the post! :)
      It’s funny how foreigners don’t get the head bobble, isnt it? haha I love the clip from Outsoruced too! Very representative!

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