The great Indian head bobble

The great Indian head bobble

Decoding the celebrated Indian head shake once and for all
great indian head bobble
What I want to say is ... no, yes, maybe, what?

Be warned. I am going to share with you something that will forever change your perception of more than a billion people.

If you are an Indian it will bring you inner peace and smug satisfaction, and help you avoid much humiliation. If you are a foreigner, it will lead to spiritual salvation.

If you are in business it will lead to a paradigm shift of your vision and mission statement. And if you are Mark Zuckerberg you may be tempted to replace smileys with "bobbles."

If you are a pet lover you may actually bond better with your iguana or tortoise.

It’s something that the authors of "The Secret" and "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" have completely missed. And it’s called The Great Indian Head Bobble.

How it works

How the people of India shake their heads to communicate is a life- and game-changer.

Let me share two intensely personal experiences.

A gruff guy at the New York airport immigration almost deported me because I was answering with various shakes of my head instead of speaking up.

A woman (from North India) once proposed to me (from South India) and I nodded my head. Now that she is my wife she understands that, often, my Yes nod is a No nod.

The Bobble can be a nod, shake, slow turn, raise or spasm of an Indian’s head. It can be vertical, horizontal or circular. It can be one or many. It is as simple as that.

Let me explain some of the most common Bobbles.

Yes Bobble

The Yes Bobble resembles a western nod, a slight dip of the head, a slight tuck of the chin, while looking at the other person.

As a television journalist I learnt it is an extremely useful gesture. The BBC used to call them Noddies. After an interview, we would often ask celebrities, politicians and businessmen to give us a few Noddies. We would record this separately and insert it later. It would make the interviewee look in agreement or thoughtful to what was being said while actually during the recording the interviewer was spluttering like an idiot.

But the Yes Bobble in India is different from the Western nod. The head sometime dips many times to emphasize the Yes Bobble. Do not, I repeat do not, mistake this for a symptom of Parkinson’s Disease.

Another version of the Yes Bobble is an arc -- clockwise or sometimes anticlockwise -- sway of the head which exercises your neck muscles. The sway of the head is vigorous when children do it, especially when you ask them “Shall we go see blood-sucking vampires today? The sway is slower, hesitant, almost reluctant, when adults like your writer here respond to spouses or dinner invites from dreadful cousins.

No Bobble 

Multiple shakes of the head, right to left. Usually it is accompanied by narrowing of eyes, lips curling in disapproval or sometimes even a clucking sound.

Some folks, especially middle and old-aged Indian women, emphasize the shake of the head with the word “Na,” which actually means no.

Drivers, vegetable vendors and Indians who control the destiny of the world have another version of the No Bobble. They shake their head just once, right to left. It is means an Absolute No. Until you show them more money.

It is important to note that in southern India, the No Bobble can often be mistaken. Multiple shakes or wiggles of the head side to side can also be used to appreciate something. So if you were to say in Chennai that AR Rahman’s music is mind-blowing and the man sitting opposite shakes his head, it does not mean that he disagrees with you.

Maybe Bobble

This requires a discerning eye and is just a slight side movement of the head, a half tilt. Remember how dogs slightly tilt their head when they look at you amused?

Indians themselves often do not spot the Maybe Bobble. How many times have we witnessed corporate bosses asking “Have I made myself clear”? They just fail to pick our Maybe Bobble.

Wassup Bobble

This is just a tilt of your head, usually accompanied by a smile. Sometimes you can also add one emphatic quick nod up and down. It is the Indian equivalent of "Hiya!"

Foreigners who crack this one have always told me that they found India such a welcoming place.

Don’t ever make the mistake the Americans do and ask your Indian neighbor or colleague, "How’s your day?" You may get an answer that may screw up your entire day. Instead just do the Wassup Bobble with a slight smile. No words are needed. And everyone will like you.

Connoisseurs Bobble

This is a unique mix of a No and Yes Bobble which, much like Indian religion, has to be understood in totality and not in parts.

It is usually highlighted by shaking your head gently three times right to left, pausing, and then nodding once like an iguana.

You can see Indians doing this at a music session or even your neighbor while watching a singing reality show on TV. The iguana nod is accompanied to a beat.

I recently shot a documentary on Indian classical music and saw a French woman mesmerized by the Connoisseurs Bobble.

Whiplash Bobble

If you have traveled in Mumbai’s local trains or in buses or taught at colleges in India, you must have witnessed this.

It’s a sudden free fall of the head forward or sideways till the neck almost snaps. I have seen people getting flustered by what’s happening to the passenger sitting beside.

Relax. It just means I am sleeping.

Now read: 10 classic Indianisms: 'Doing the needful' and more ...

Having traveled widely as a print, television and Internet journalist, Mahesh Nair is now based in Mumbai making documentaries, corporate films and, oh yes, movies.

Read more about Mahesh Nair
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