This question is often asked in Indian intercultural training programmes.
"We don't get it! Why do they always nod? And in different ways too!?"
Well, there is a reason that; India is one of the most challenging cultures to operate in for foreigners.
It's things like this that can confuse people and leave them scratching their heads instead of nodding them!
Here, we'll try and unpick the meaning as well as the intention behind the head nod.
First, let's look at the many meanings of the head nod before we examine 2 reasons why it's used:
- The Indian Communication Style
- The Values of Face & Shame
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A Nod With Many Meanings
The ‘Indian head bobble’, the ‘Indian head’ or the ‘Indian Head Shake’, as it’s most often known, is common across South Asian cultures, but most notable in Indian culture.
It involves a side to side or diagonal tilting of the head which can be used to communicate a diverse range of thoughts, feelings and intentions.
For example, the Head Wobble can mean:
• The Hello Wobble
• The Acknowledgment Wobble
• The Sign of Respect Wobble
• The No / Yes / Maybe Wobble
• The Not Sure / Maybe / Perhaps Wobble and;
• The Got it! Wobble
There are so many wobbles that it’s impossible to capture them all in a single blog!
They are also so ingrained in Indian culture, with such subtle nuances, that accurate descriptions of each head wobble are not feasible. Wobbles just….. are!!!!
The only difference that’s truly discernible and recognisable by Westerners is the voracity of head wobbles. The more vigorous the Indian head wobble, the more excited, committed or agreeable the communicator is likely to be.
Conversely, small head wobbles may be delivered to simply show respect, to acknowledge something or to indicate that the person communicating isn’t fully committed or that they are perhaps unwilling.
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Where does the Indian head wobble come from?
1. The Indian Communication Style
Unlike most Western cultures, Indian culture relies on body language and other contextual cues to communicate meaning.
In the cultural training field, we describe Indian communication culture as ‘high context’ whilst Western cultures are described as low context.
To explain this further, in Western cultures, we tend to say what we mean, while in Indian cultures, people tend to make greater use of body language and context to communicate meaning.
The head wobble, for example, may be delivered in the absence of any verbal response.
For Western foreigners, this can be incredibly confusing. Does their Indian counterpart mean yes, no, maybe or not sure?
2. Face and Shame
An additional aspect of Indian culture that trips many foreigners up, is the Indian reluctance to say ‘no’.
Saying no can be perceived as disrespectful, which is part of an Indian cultural phenomenon known as ‘Face’.
Rather than say no, Indians may instead prefer to give a slight head wobble; saving both their own ‘face’ and that of the person they are communicating with.
Again, this can trip foreigners up, but since this behaviour is deeply rooted in Indian culture, then Indian people are usually able to decipher the meaning.
If you’re travelling to India and want to make the best impression when you arrive, then it’s worth making the effort to understand Indian communication and aspects such as the Indian head wobble before you go.
This research will go a long way to helping you develop positive relationships when you arrive.
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