Are you familiar with the Indian head shake? I was not when I was first introduced to my husband’s family. In a nutshell, the Indian head shake is a side-to-side tilt of the head that, depending on circumstances, may mean “Yes”, “Maybe” or “No”. If that sounds confusing that’s because it truly is, at least to Western people.
Imagine you ask your Indian mother-in-law if she would like to have a specific food and she answers with a smile and the head shake. What does it mean? Does she want the food? Or would she rather not have it? Or is she agreeing to have it though not very enthusiastic about it? This would often happen to me, and puzzle me, until I finally came to understand that Aachi‘s own head shake, in this type of situation, was most of the time a yes, gentle and devoid of assertiveness.
Our trips to India have given me the opportunity to observe many Indian head shakes and become a little more fluent in their subtle variations. One thing I have noticed is that women do it significantly more often than men. Head shakes occur in most of their interactions with other people. I think the gender difference is related to the unassertive nature of the head shake. In Indian society, as in many societies, women behave and are expected to behave with more restraint than men and the head shake definitely fits that pattern.
Another thing that has struck me is that Appa, who almost never does the head shake here, does it spontaneously when we meet friends and relatives in India. It makes a lot of sense to me. It is a very natural way for him to reconnect with his roots, like eating local food and wearing traditional clothes. Besides, it illustrates the well known point that mirroring body language is in itself a powerful connector.
I have also found that, beyond the tricky yes/no/maybe dimension, the head shake is often used simply to express attention. When two Indian people talk with each other, head shakes punctuate the conversation as a way for the person who listens to acknowledge what is being said and to engage. It is a mark of interest and, ultimately, of respect.
This meaning is something I have grown to appreciate and value. “I am here listening to you. I don’t necessarily have something to say but I am paying attention.” As a fairly typical Western individual, I have not always been aware that what you say is often less important than what you convey otherwise. This realization is slowly sinking in, not least thanks to my multicultural family. So much so that I now occasionally catch myself doing the Indian head shake!