Head Gestures
Part 1

Home - Gestures - Head Gestures Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Hi there and welcome to the series where we shall deepen our understanding of head movements and how they're manifested.

Head gestures reveal the way we see things and how we feel about them. As the sensory center of our body, the head turns towards the things we like, and away from the things we want to avoid.

Truth is, it's quite instinctive to "get it" when it comes to the meaning of head gestures. We know that a nod means a 'yes' and shaking the head means a 'no' (most of us anyway). We also learned to recognize many other more subtle movements subconsciously, meaning we get a certain feedback from them but often if we were asked why is that so - we couldn't say.

where is my mind?.

I'll give an example that can illustrate this point perfectly. Suppose you're trying to convince  your boss with a new idea you have for a product (just pretend) - you're enthusiastic and animated - you make the best to sell your idea. Your boss, however, doesn't say a single word during your presentation - he just sits there and stares at you, at the end of your presentation he just mention that he'll consider it.

Do you think he bought your sales pitch? Of course not.

But how can you explain why is that so? Because if you relying solely on his words it can either mean a positive or negative reaction. Understanding body language gives you the edge - you'll know to recognize the nonverbal signals happening during the presentation, interpret them as positive or negative and change your strategy before the final chord is played.

let's start with something basics that are easy to remember and implement:

It's Quite Simple Really...

Not to overcomplicate things, head gestures are mainly telling us 2 things:

1) How someone is agreeable and in rapport with us

2) How engaged, enthusiastic and committed they are to the current event, and if they're not - where their true interest lies.

With these two things in mind you can figure out many combination of attitudes:

head profile
  • Animated and rhythmic head-nods show agreement and understanding.

  • Erratic head movements with frequent eye glances to the sides show discomfort and stress. This person clearly doesn't want to be where he is and he seeks help or escape route from another direction.

  • Slow head shake shows disbelief or uncertainty towards a remark being said. "I just can't believe it...". If it was a faster head shaking it was a decisive "no".

Just think about it as 2 set of scales:

Positive vs Negative

And Animated vs Still.

Now that we get that, let's get to more specifics:

Head Thrust and Head Retreat

When it comes to priorities, our head is definitely at the top. Our brain is a very egoistic organ, if it feels threatened or lacking blood or oxygen he automatically cuts off the supply and protection from other organs to support itself.

Note: this is why we faint - it's a defensive mechanism that forces us to lay down - so blood can get more easily to the brain!

We guard our head with vigilance. When we're about to fall we won't think twice - we will instinctively push our hands forward to protect the most precious our head, even at the expense of injury to the hands.

This sort of attitude is seen in these 2 opposite head gestures:

Head Thrust - When we're extremely angry we thrust our head forward, ready for battle like a predator locked on his pray. We neglect our self defense and focus on the attack, some people won't hesitate to use their head as a weapon and headbutt their opponent.

Head Retreat - Just think of a turtle retreating back into the safety of his house. We do that when we're afraid and defensive, obviously, but also when we feel negatively towards what's happening - we back away from what we don't like.

Meaning it’s aggressiveness and action  vs defensiveness and retreat

Try this: suppose your friend tells you a story and you hear something unlikable\ unbelievable\ strange - the reaction of your head tells your friend how you truly feel about his story. If you thrust forward - it's an aggressive but more engaged and perhaps emphatic reaction (like saying "I can't believe it, let's deal with it right away!") if your head retreats it show disbelief and incredulity ("I don't buy this...")

Head Tilt

I heard many theories about the meaning of the head tilt, that if you tilt to your right side you look more intelligent and if you tilt to your left you look more attractive and other somewhat strange "facts". I don't know much about it frankly, and in my honest opinion,  it's impractical to remember and use.

What it can tell us is when our listener is intrigued and engaged with our words, when we have his\her attention. Just like a dog would look at you when you make a funny sound - the "what's up?" look.


It also means that this person is quite comfortable with us because this is a display of a laidback attitude.

I'll like to think about it as if the head tilt allows the listener to literally have a different point of view on what's he just heard or seen...

The kind of interest and attention can be diverse and depends upon the context:

  • An interviewer who tilts his head and nods signals the interviewee to continue speaking, he finds his message important.

  • It can be a sympathetic gesture of interest: "are you ok? You don't look so well..."

  • Head tilt with a momentary glance to the side is an evaluation signal especially when it's combined with the hand touching the cheek or chin.

  • In courtship the head tilt shows playful and engaged attitude, it's shows interest but also a tease (especially when it's combined with a half smile and sideways glance)

  • A head tilt up and to the side reveals surprise or disbelief: "wow...really?"

And the list goes on. In general it's a positive sign because it means our listener is in tune with us and we have his attention. This makes a head tilt a great tool in your repertoire - use it more often to create rapport or to show involvement.

Watch this excerpt from "friends" that demonstrate 2 sets of gestures the head nod and the sympathetic head tilt:

What's Next?

Next we're gonna explore the head-nod - the most common head gesture and what we can achieve with it.

Head gestures - Part 2

You can also jump to the final part on head shaking - Part 3

Return to gestures main section

Return to homepage - study body language

Return to top

Copyright © Study-Body-Language.com 2012 - 2016

Disclaimer Privacy Policy