The shake, nod and waffle

All over the world, South Asians get a bum rap for being equivocal. This comes from the Occidental's inability to understand head movement. It is as simple as that.

They claim that we nod our heads to say 'no' when we mean 'yes', and 'yes' when we mean 'no', or at the very least we try to fudge the issue by making a vague gesture that signifies negative nor positive.

There is actually no cause for confusion, which only exists inside the head of overseas observers. For them, there are simply two kinds of head movements, those that indicate 'yes' and 'no'. They cannot countenance a third category of movement, which has very subtle shades of meaning that tilts from 'okay' and 'maybe' to 'if you say so'.

With this third type of head movement, the subject is not trying to equivocate or confuse, but is instead seeking to indicate a nuanced sensibility which understands that the world is not made up of blacks and whites, but overwhelming greys. Most importantly, this head waffle (as opposed to the nod and the shake) is a wholly different species of head-movement and not a lame South Asian mid-way gesture between the two.

The differentiation can be explained simply enough if one has an understanding of the concept of the fulcrum. It is quite basic, really. Keep in mind that it all has to do with the upper spinal column where the neck is, in particular the set of vertebrae that reach up from the thoracic region to the cervical.

Diagram A illustrates the 'yes' mode, in which the fulcrum is at middle-neck, around where the thoracic and cervical vertebrate meet up. The 'yes' movement causes the head as a whole to dip down and rear up.

Diagram B indicates the 'no' shake of the head. Its fulcrum is along the vertical axis going down the cervical column, with the head swinging horizontally left-to- right and right-to-left.

Diagram C is the difficult one, but only until you understand that there is an altogether different fulcrum and axis at play. Here, too, as in Diagram B, the movement is around the middle-neck, but the plane is different. Whereas in 'yes', the play of the vertebrae is back and forth, here it is an arc from side to side. If you are looking at the subject face-to-face, in a 'no' you will see the head turn left and right, whereas in a waffle it will tilt leftwards and rightwards.

Now that we have explained the science of the waffle, let us look into its anthropology. The yes-nod and no-shake are very much there in the South Asian repertoire, and they mean what they do elsewhere in the world. However, the head-waffle takes us into a cerebral terrain uncharted by many other societies. At its most positive, the waffle means 'okay'. Let us consider an encounter:

Question: Do you want to try this spoonful of castor oil?

Answer: (head-waffle)

This simple gesture is pregnant with possible meanings. A yes-nod would of course leave no confusion, as would a no-shake. But a head-waffle would mean:

  1. a) come to think of it, I quite like caster oil, so, okay, what the heck, give it to me; b) maybe I should have it, if you say so, oh, alright; c) I really detest the thing, but I am so dominated by you that I will signify my assent with this head-waffle.

So, which one is it among the three (in this instance, and there could be more) scenarios? That is the beauty of South Asian living! The observer must decipher whether the head-waffle is an 'okay' or a 'maybe' or fatalistic acceptance based on the surrounding circumstances and visual cues. However, the one confusion that has to be laid to rest is this— the South Asian is not saying 'no' when he is saying 'yes', or vice versa. He is saying something quite different— an 'okay' or maybe a 'maybe'.

Just because the dominant, globalised First World has only two kinds of head nods and shakes, it does not mean that there may not be more kinds elsewhere. Just as the Eskimos have scores of words for snow, the more varieties of nods and shakes present in a society, the more it speaks of that society's cultural sophistication and ability to address the subtleties of human interaction. Only when we come to a Ramrajya where everything is black and white, and positive and negative, good or bad, will us South Asians do away with the head waffle. For the moment, the world is full of greys, and we have the head movement to prove it.

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Himal Southasian