Head Gestures - Part 3
Head Shake

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Welcome to this third and final part in the series where we'll examine the head shaking gesture.

So first of all, to state the obvious - when I talk about head shaking I talk about the rotation of the head from side to side to mean (almost) universally - NO.

And just like with the head nod, understanding the meaning of the head shake is simple but we can take a closer look to find out more than it looks on the surface. I also want to talk about other head gestures that are similar to head shaking but hold other significance.

A Closer Look

Just like with the head nod, the speed and rhythm of the motion gives us hints about the manner of the listener:

  • A fast and rhythmic head shaking definitely says - “no, I disagree, this is not true.”

  • A slow and irregular turning of the head usually signals misunderstanding.
    Something didn't get through quite right.

  • Slow and rhythmic head shaking can also signal disbelief. We cannot accept what we just heard.

Different Shakes - Different Attitudes

So far so good, but sometimes the head shake is only barely visible. It can be quick or nonchalant, it doesn't require a “complete” head shaking from side to side , a single turn of the head still can signal “no” - as if the listener got slapped by the words he just heard. I mention this because most people avoid shaking their head like a cartoon character, and often culturally raised with the idea that it's impolite or inappropriate.

It's important to look for these negative signs,especially if you see them during your sales pitch, even if the listener doesn't utter them verbally. These hidden objections are not going away, and you better clear the air before proceeding and potentially losing the sale.

The Cut-Off

We talked about how the head can signal where our interests lie by pointing towards them.  This is especially evident in what experts call the cut-off gesture.

When we cut-off someone, we turn away from them, be it with our head, turning a cold shoulder or even giving them the back. Needless to say, the more we turn with our body the more severe is the negative reaction. Turning the head aside is probably the most gentle cut off, but it's annoying nonetheless.

Now, before we jump to conclusions, let's distinguish between a cut-off and simply looking to the side to contemplate:

What happened?

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When we converse on serious matters we often prefer to look to the distance, it helps us concentrate and think more clearly, it's not because we dislike the person we speak with or his words - it's simply a switch from conversing to processing.

When we don't like what we hear however, we try to engage as little as possible and strive to end the talk. We show other impatience gestures such as glancing to the sides, tapping or playing with objects and if we participate we do it  with minimal effort by throwing meaningless remarks.

When NO actually mean YES

Now, while nodding  for ‘yes’ and head shaking  for ‘no’ is almost a universal trait, there are a few cultural exceptions:

In some Balkan countries (Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania) the reverse is the true. Nodding upwards means a "no" , and shaking the head means a "yes".

I didn't find a sufficient reason to why is that so just yet, and it's very intriguing because we are inborn knowing these gestures (even blind babies shake their heads to signal they done with the feeding).

Still, we need to respect our differences, and if you happen to visit such places remember this gesture and you’ll save yourself some awkward moments.

Head Bobble - Not really a "no", not really a "yes"

One of the more confusing head gestures you'll see is the head bobble in India.

There are actually several ways to make it, and each can have a different meaning. It can mean yes, no, maybe, a greeting and a thank you. All depends on the circumstances and the slightest changes in the exact motion.

Generally speaking, this gesture involves moving the head vertically from side to side. But I won't pretend that I can elaborate on how each specific motion done and how to distinguish between a head bobble for  a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. I never been to India and I believe this is one of the things you got to learn by careful observation and training.

Here’s a quick video that I found that demonstrate the difference between a head bobble for yes or a no, not the most comprehensive guide, but helps nonetheless:

Some Home Work

I believe I gave you many pointers to consider when it comes to head gestures.

I want to summarize with some practical tips:

1) Use the head nod to encourage and to build rapport with others, take note when someone else is trying to build rapport with you!

2)Understand how attentive someone is by the way he moves his head.

3) Listen to your instincts, if you believe someone disagrees with you, or just doesn't feel involved, stop and clear the air, don't waste your words on deaf ears.

4) Remember, speed and direction are the main things you need to pay attention to.

5) If you visit a foreign country, get to know and respect their culture and customs, if you can mimic them you connect with them better. Don't worry if you'll make mistakes, they'll appreciate it even if you only try.


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