Friday, 5 August 2011

Decoding the Head Wobble

Ah, the Indian Head Wobble. Was there ever a form of communication more ubiquitous, or with a greater capacity to both confuse and amuse the foreign observer? (Thanks in advance to YouTube for helping with this post!)

There is a good deal of disagreement about the Wobble and what it means. The standard Wobble is a side-to-side movement of the ahead around a horizontal axis (rather than a vertical one as in when one shakes one's head). To clarify, it looks like this:

Now, note that the person who posted that video says that it's how Indians say "OK". Ah, if only it were that simple. Truth is, there are a number of different Wobbles, which can convey any number of meanings. Usually they are not accompanied by any words, so interpreting them is a challenge - I frequently have to stop conversation with my Indian colleagues to ask them to confirm what exactly they meant by their most recent Wobble.

So back to the standard Wobble. You see this a lot, generally when you are talking to somebody. It most commonly conveys that the Wobbler is listening to you and understands what you are saying. It doesn't necessarily mean they agree with what you are saying, however. For that there is a different movement: a sharp movement of the head to one side, usually accompanied by a momentary closing of the eyes. This is a difficult one to get your head round because to Western eyes it looks like a dismissive gesture, but it actually indicates emphatic agreement. As demonstrated here:

There are others I have come across, too. So a sharp upwards movement of the head often means "what?" or "don't be ridiculous!" An exaggerated version of the standard wobble can convey impatience: "yes, yes, I know this, get on with it". And a speeded-up version indicates that something has been agreed, as explained quite nicely here:

Something else I've noticed, though, is that some Indians use a movement that is much closer to a standard head shake in the same way as they use a Wobble during conversation - ie to convey that they are following what you are saying. This has thrown me several times and led to a number of circular conversations where my impression that someone disagrees with me has collided with their impression that I am holding up a perfectly good conversation for no reason at all.

The thing that you can never do is assume that a regular head Wobble means "yes" in answer to a yes/no question. This is only definitively the case if (as in the video above) it's a rapid, definite movement. A slower movement can mean anything from "yes" to "that's nice" to "just shut up and get in the rickshaw, and we'll argue about the price when we get there." In these cases, confirmation of the meaning should be sought - however this is difficult, as Indians tend to confirm that you have interpreted their meaning correctly with another head Wobble, of equal ambiguity.

There are some interesting explanantions behind the Wobble. I have heard it argued that it dates back to the Raj era, and that the British didn't like to hear a no from the "natives", so Indians evolved an ambiguous, harmless alternative to avoid having to disappoint. Personally I think this is probably nonsense, and it doesn't explain why the practice varies so much across the country (it's more prevalent in the south, but you see it everywhere in Delhi too). It is undeniable that to Western eyes the movement looks rather comic, and that it can have a softening effect on the impression given by the person you are talking to. Even the most fearsome Indian seems less so when mid-Wobble. But I don't think this is a perception that Indian people would share.

Like most gestures, you can't really learn how to use the Wobble in a calculated manner. It's instinctive, and I'm gradually learning how to interpret it instinctively too. Which is lucky, because the other thing about the Wobble is that it's incredibly infectious - I catch myself doing it most days. So if, in the future, you are ever making plans with me and my head starts bouncing from side to side like a metronome on Allegrissimo, you know we've got a date.


Sunflower72 said...

Having lived most of my life in countries with large Indian communities your description of the varied meanings of the head 'wobble' had me smiling...SO TRUE! I love your blogg Chris... Lou x

Chris said...

Thanks Lou, glad you enjoy it! Every day brings new things to write about. I can't do this amazing country real justice but I can try!

Sonya said...

Interesting post! Keep them coming xx