Just a little heads up

We all know that hand gestures aren’t always universal, but what about head movements?  Surely a nod always means yes?

Even our most basic head gestures (nodding ‘yes’ and shaking ‘no’) don’t always translate across cultures.  In some cases, what is quite polite and normal in one place would seem outright rude in another.

When I was in Turkey, it took me a little while to understand it meant a simple ‘no’ when someone jerked his head upward and backward once, while clicking his tongue against the top of his mouth.  To me, it seemed dismissive and impatient, but this is the standard gesture in Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Nodding means ‘yes’ in most countries, but signals ‘no’ in places as divergent as Bulgaria and Sri Lanka.

Head shaking means ‘no’ in a lot of places, but ‘yes’ in Saudi Arabia.  In Turkey, it means ‘I don’t know’ in much the same way as a shrugging of the shoulders.

A head bobble (a repeated tilting of the head to the left and right) can mean disapproval (such as in some East Slavic cultures), but means ‘OK’ in India.

A single nod can be used as a greeting or acknowledgement in most places.

A chin jerk can be used to point out a direction, or in some places, such as the USA or New Zealand, can be used as a greeting or acknowledgement.  It signals ‘no’ in Iran.

A bent head with eyes facing down can be a sign of submission, respect, acknowledgement, greeting, or confirmation.  Usually other cues need to be taken into account to interpret this one.

In Greece, to signal ‘yes’, tilt your head to the left and right.  For ‘no’, slightly nod your head upwards, or lift your eyebrows.


The phrase ‘heads up’ is used to mean ‘advance warning’ (mainly in the USA), e.g. “The boss arrived early, but the heads up from Jimmy gave us enough time to put work on our desks.”

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