The Indian head wobble

Whenever I talk about India (quite a lot, incidentally), one of the things I find myself repeating is the huge diversity across the country. Moving from one state to another is like going to a different country. I’m talking about language (over 200 dialects in India), cuisine (it’s not just about curry, people), landscape, economy, education, literacy levels, dress sense… the list goes on. But there are a few constants. Wherever you go in India, people WILL have darker than white skin. People WILL drive like lunatics. And most importantly, people will constantly do the Indian “head wobble”.

So what is this head wobble I speak of?

Indians of all ages perform it and to varying degrees of “wobbliness”. It can be frantic and visible to every human within a 10 meter radius,or it can be so subtle that you might not even notice it unless you are accustomed to the way of the wobble. The confusing part is that the head wobble can mean a range of things. Here is a short list of what it can represent:

  • “Yes”
  • “No”
  • “Hello”
  • “Goodbye”
  • “Thank you”
  • “Please”
  • “You’re welcome”
  • “Sorry”
  • “I don’t know”
  • “Maybe”

When I visited the motherland for the first time, there was a lot of confusion. Asking a waiter a simple question would be met with head wobbles and grinning. To somebody who is new to this strange Indian action, your first instinct is to think “Well, that didn’t answer my question. Does he mean this dish WILL or WON’T be spicy?” As time goes on though… it will still make very little sense! But it does become funnier. Once you embrace the ambiguity of this national gesture and maybe even start rocking your own head wobble, you’ll learn that it doesn’t matter what it means. Just enjoy the madness and try to perfect your own.

I tried an experiment on a 24 hour train journey once (you can expect a whole new blog post discussing Indian trains…). I walked up and down carriages, peering into cabins and giving a little nod of the head. I received the odd smile, but largely people carried on as they were. The occasional one would obviously ask me why I looked Indian but wore western clothes and spoke with a strange accent, but that’s normal.

When I traded the slight nod with a head wobble, all hell broke loose. Stern and weary faces were instantly replaced with welcoming smiles and, of course, a reciprocated head wobble. I was offered seats, food, drinks, babies (to hold, not keep) and generally made to feel like part of the family. When I eventually had to tell people that my girlfriend at the time was waiting for me in another carriage so I had to go, it just prompted them to ask questions about why I wasn’t married! Again, that’s a whole other topic.

The moral of the story is: if you want to build instant rapport with any local Indian, all it takes is a little bit of casual head wobbling. (Practice in front of a mirror… I can assure you, you WILL look ridiculous). More importantly, if you want to keep from pulling all of your hair out and getting constantly frustrated, you need to accept as early as possible that most of your questions will be met with a wobble and more often than not, leave you more confused than before you asked the question.

Only in India…