Head Nod
Head Gestures - Part 2

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We continue with the study of head gestures and this time we will be focusing on the most “agreeable” signal - the head nod.

Now now, before you start arguing that it's no brainer - a nod is a nod and it’s simply means yes, end of story. Let me argue that it's only the beginning...

The nod means almost universally - “yes, I agree” or “I understand”. But what about the small details? can they tell us something more? How often you nod, how do you nod and where do you look when you nod can tell a lot more than just that it's a sign for agreement or comprehension.

Besides, if you start thinking about the head nod as a tool - you can effectively use it to control the flow of conversation and signal the other party what do you truly think about what they say without uttering a word.

So, are you ready to get a little deeper?


Building Rapport

Let's talk about rapport for a second.

It's important for us as social animals to look for some common ground with those who surround us - we want to feel part of a group. We instinctively want to feel similar to others (or to find others that are similar to us) so we can be accepted and understood by them.

This rationale has a big effect on our behavior and is very evident in our body language in what called isoprxism or mirroring. This is the behavior of copying each other body language when we feel "chemistry" and rapport with them. I won't go into detail about it in this article, but I mention this because the head nod is one of the signals to show this synchrony between people.

Nodding is addictive, when we talk about something that is important to us - we nod and expect the other party to nod back - it’s a feedback mechanism to see if we're all on the same page.

close bond.

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This is also true when we want to show sympathy and enthusiasm towards others, it’s an appeasement gesture, just like the smile.

Of course, this happens on a subconscious level, it's so addictive that it's hard to resist not to nod when the other party does.

So what happens when we don't? A perfectly still head signals the other party that:

A. We didn't get it

B. We don't agree

C. Even if we agree we don't really like them at the moment.

Try this with a good friend: just hold your head still and maintain a steady eye contact. Don't move your head no matter what. You'll notice most likely that after a few moments they will start nodding and tilting their head to encourage you (unaware of course) to do the same. If you’ll continue to resist, their frustration will escalate up to a level that they will try to investigate what happened or simply lose interest in the conversation.

Rhythm , Length and Gaze

OK so I mentioned there are different ways to nod, and if you think about - you never nod the same way, especially in the same conversation, otherwise you'll  look just like an head bobble figure.

First of all let's talk about the speed and rhythm of the nod - how quick and animated it is:

  • Slow and lengthy nods usually show agreement and understanding, they're not urging you to finish talking. "Take your time I'm listening"

  • Small nods combined with a smile is an encouraging and bonding signal.

  • A fast rapid nod, especially if the listener is touching his ear or rubs his face,  show impatience and urge you to move on or let them do the talking. "yeah I got it, let's move on"

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Now the direction -

The head is the center of your sensors and therefore will point itself to see, hear and smell more of what it likes and move away from the things it doesn't like.

So if people don't look at you while they nod it can mean that they're distracted and nod only for show


It can also mean that they’re still thinking about something you said earlier.  It's hard to think deeply and maintain eye contact, it’s their "processing" time. Don't take it personally and often allow your listener a few moments of reflection, or just clarify your words.

Head Beckoning

It's a quick dip of the head downwards or a little toss of the head backwards, usually to signal recognition. It's a nonverbal way of greetings when shaking hands seems inappropriate or uncomfortable OR a prelude to such physical contact.

Just think about it as a substitute for saying "I see you, hi there"

Another example from "friends" - Joey's "How you doing?" usually combined with his head beckoning.

A quick note however: People who use this head nod for greetings do so because they prefer to keep their distance and avoid looking too eager. This way they can establish a formal level to the interaction and maintain their 'cool' facade.

Example: Think about a high status manager who meets one of his workers during work. The manager will beckon his head to say hello and recognize the person in front of him, but he will probably avoid shaking hands or making more empathetic gestures because he prefers to keep things on a formal level.  In fact, acting more lively than expected with a subordinate can lead to confusion and  suspiciousness from the subordinate side.

What to Take From Here?

With these facts in mind you gain a new power over your interactions:

Nod when you want to encourage and hear more. It's extremely useful when you do want to know more about a specific point in their speech. It encourages the speaker to continue - they see that you like what you hear.

E.g. suppose you're an interviewer and you think your interviewee holds back on a certain subject. Try to encourage him to delve deeper by nodding sympathetically while he speaks on that specific point - he might feel it’s safe enough to open up to you.

Nodding too much however loses its effect, as anything you do too repetitively, you just start being a phony or a boot-licker.

If you’re tired and bored you can always hold your head still or to look away, many times people just nod out of politeness, but the non-observant  speaker misinterpret this as agreement and encouraged to continue  - and the cycle continues.

Also remember that nodding doesn't always means that someone agrees with you, it can signal understanding, but not necessarily that he thinks the same way as you.

Need a Review?

Alright... next we move on the final part with head gestures, we'll look at the ‘nemesis’ of the head nod - the head-shake.

If you wish you can review the first part here:

Head Gestures - Part 1

I also recommend reading this article about why the head nod means "yes" and the head-shake "no"

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