The Indian Head Wobble or Shake: What Does It Mean?

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The peculiar Indian head shake, wobble, or bobble is the source of much confusion and wonderment among foreigners, especially the first time one is confronted with it. It looks like a cross between a nod and shake, but does it mean "yes"? Or, does it mean "no"? Or, even "maybe"?

The confusion is increased when the gesture is silent. Without speech to give any clues as to the message it's supposed to convey, it’s easy to feel bewildered and possibly insulted.

However, once you discover the meaning of the head wobble and its many uses, what's really surprising is how infectious this gesture becomes. Anyone who's spent a considerable amount of time in India is likely to have caught themselves unconsciously wobbling their head. Even Indians who don't normally wobble their heads very much will automatically do so in response to another head wobble. A lot of the time, they don't even realize they're doing it!

So, what's the mysterious head wobble all about?

How the Indian Head Wobble Is Used

The head wobble is the non-verbal equivalent of the multipurpose and omnipresent Hindi word achha. It can mean anything from "good" to "I understand." Indians who do not speak English will often rely on a head wobble to communicate with foreign tourists.

The head wobble is most commonly used as a sign to show that what's being said is understood. For example, if you tell someone you'll meet them at a certain place at 5 o'clock and they wobble their head at you, it means that it's fine and they'll be there. If you ask someone if the train is going to your destination and they wobble their head in reply, it means "yes."

However, the head wobble can be used in a deliberately ambiguous manner. Directly saying "no" is widely considered to be impolite or disrespectful in Indian culture. Giving a vague wobble is one way of not making a firm commitment without being offensive. This even causes Indians to get exasperated!

Some people will also give a vague and unenthusiastic wobble if they're feeling undecided or indifferent. For example, when asked if they want to go to a particular restaurant. 

Other situations where you're likely to encounter a head wobble include:

  • As an alternative to "thank you", which is not commonly said in India.
  • To acknowledge someone's presence. This can be particularly useful if you see someone you know across the street but can't shout out to them.
  • As a gesture of kindness or benevolence, for example, if someone sits down next to you on the train.

Where You Will Encounter the Indian Head Wobble

Similar to how the different regions in India have different customs and languages, the way in which heads are wobbled varies too. You'll find that the further south you go in India, the more prevalent the head wobble becomes. People from south Indian states such as Kerala are very enthusiastic head-wobblers, whereas in the mountains of north India, the gesture is less common.

Without a doubt, however, the head wobble is the one universal gesture that unites all Indians. Cultural and language barriers miraculously dissolve with a wobble. It's definitely a case of "actions speak louder than words."

Tips For Understanding the Indian Head Wobble

Keep in mind these pointers and you'll be well on your way to making sense of the Indian head wobble:

  • A fast and continuous head wobble means that the person really understands. The more vigorous the wobbling, the more understanding there is.
  • A quick wobble from side to side means "yes" or "alright".
  • A slow soft wobble, sometimes accompanied by a smile, is a sign of friendship and respect.