The Nod

The Nod

Cultural differences are not only manifested in traditions or in spoken language, but also in our body language. A very simple gesture is the nod. For most of the world, including China, Western Europe, the U.S., and Africa, the nod is strictly defined to mean yes (head goes up and down once or twice) and the sideways nod or shake of the head from left to right usually means no. There is also a general acceptation that the frequency of the nod is used to make a point and emphasize the individual’s belief: a more frequent nod left-right places more emphasizes on

Against the logic of all “nodding” countries, there are people in this world who decided to reverse the nods and their meaning. It is the Bulgarians who do so, as well as their neighbors from Macedonia and Albania: to them nodding up and down means no. Reverse nodding have been observed with the Greeks and Turks as well and even in places with similar Mediterranean culture, like Naples in Italy. In Turkey a sharp upwards nod of the head is actually considered a very rude “no”, as in “No way, what are you thinking, you silly tourist?!” and is often accompanied by a “tsk” sound made with the tongue.

No matter how hard you try, you will most likely never be able to change the way you nod, as it is something so etched in our brains it is second nature. So, if you are in any of these countries, try to   say yes or no instead of the nod or you might find yourself agreeing to something you really don’t want, like the traveler in Sofia Bulgaria who, when asked if he wanted corn on his cheese pizza shook his head from side to side, which of course was translated as a yes, and he had to learn to like corn pizza that night.

If you think reverse nodding isn’t enough, the Indians have a mixture of nod and shake that translates into something that is neither. The head goes right-left and front-back with a seemingly chaotic movement that makes one wonder whether the interlocutor is trying to tell you something or simply alert you that he is in great pain and not feeling well. It is neither, but it is also difficult to explain, since the meaning varies. It usually means yes, but it can also mean thank you, as well as the fact that your interlocutor is really getting what you are saying. Bottom line: the wobble is usually a good thing, so don’t worry about what else it might mean.

The nod is sometimes a very stiff and polite form of greeting, especially in Japan. The Japanese are very particular about their greeting, so this is always done depending on the relationship between the two persons. The general rule is that the greater the bow, the greater the respect, so, if you are old or have a better position in the company, a short nod of the head suffices, even if you can no longer see your conversation.

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