The Indian headshake

When I came to the US for graduate school, the teacher in my electromagnetism course in the first semester (who later became by thesis advisor and friend) was an excellent teacher who wanted us to understand a difficult subject and looked at us for cues as to whether we were following along as he proved various things on the board.

Since I was a conscientious student, I would sit in the first couple of rows in class and would give him what I thought were affirmative head movements to show that I understood. But he seemed increasingly puzzled and once he asked me outright whether I understood or not, despite the fact that I thought I had already indicated that I had.

The problem, of course, was that I was using the ‘Indian headshake’ that is also practiced in Sri Lanka where instead of nodding up and down to indicate ‘yes’, the head has a movement similar to that of a bobblehead doll.

Once I figured out what the problem was, I made a determined effort to replace the shake with a definite nod and over time have stopped using it completely (I think). I later discovered that my friends from Sri Lanka who came to the US also went through similar periods of misunderstanding with Americans before they figured out what was wrong

For those who are not familiar with all the subtle nuances of head and eye movement that originate from the subcontinent, here is an amusing tutorial.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Similarly, Americans in Greece get into all sorts of miscommunications, because the Greeks shake their heads for “yes” and nod for “no” – and the Greek word for “yes” sounds like “nay”, and their word for “no” sounds like “okay”.

  2. Mary Jo says

    Is this the correct video? It has a lot of information on geography but does not mention body language.

  3. Some Old Programmer says

    @2 the link is to a playlist; the first video (that I get, at least) has the title “Indian Headshakes”, the second “Are All South Indians Madrassis?” HTH.

  4. wtfwhateverd00d says

    I found the video interesting, but I ended up having to massage my neck.

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