Why do Indians shake their head from side to side even when they seem to be saying yes?


There are two obvious movements of the head: up and down, and side-ways. The up-and-down movement is universally understood to denote agreement. The side-to- side movement of the head is generally taken to mean no, but India is an exception. Why is this so?

At the very outset, it needs to be recognized that in India  it is considered extremely impolite  to explicitly voice your disagreement. Therefore no gesture is needed to imply: I do not agree.

Let us now distinguish between two types of side-to-side head movements: (i) a  rather vigorous shaking of the head from side to side, and (ii) a slow circular motion. The vigorous side-to-side head movement is a defensive signal; it screams: I did not do it. That is not true, etc. The slow circular motion denotes: Yes, I understand. This is thus complementary to the up-and down motion which implies obedience  says: Yes, Sir.

Table. Indian head movements and their meaning

Head movement   Meaning
Up and down Obedience Yes, sir/madam
Slow circular side ways Comprehension Yes, I understand
Vigorous side ways Defensive I deny


What do you do when you wish to express your disagreement? You beat about the bush till the message gets across.


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