Deciphering the ‘Indian Head Nod’ or SE Asian side-to-side ‘Head Shake’

1 minute, 18 seconds Read

India was easily the most challenging country I’ve ever visited. It was sensory overload and culturally, it was unlike any place I’ve ever experienced.

One of the many cultural customs that my ex-boyfriend and I struggled with most were the non-verbal, side-to-side head nods that accompanied everyday discussions with locals.

We came into the country unaware of this common gesture, so imagine the awkwardness when already nervous, finally asking a stranger a question and the only response was a slight side nod of the head.


As tourists, our entire universe of head shakes seemed to fall on the affirmative side of the spectrum, but because these head shakes were delivered with expressionless faces, it felt like we were somewhere in the “fine” or “sure” territory; responses that were interpreted by me as if maybe there was a cultural faux pas we were unaware of.

Many of our mealtime conversations were centered around deciphering the nuances of each unique nod we received throughout that day.

Over time we figured out that the side-to-side shake was usually an agreeable reply, but all depended on the context of the conversation.

Though we spent nearly three weeks across India, we knew it wasn’t likely we wouldn’t be able to decipher the subtle movements of the “Indian head shake,” and whether that meant “yes,” “fine,” “I understand,” or “I don’t like it, but okay.” At least it rarely means “no” — that would really be confusing.

I was inspired to write this post after seeing the following video. Though it wasn’t very much help, it is entertaining…

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