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I have recently discovered the hard way that nodding of the head for yes, shaking of the head for no is not quite as universal as I had originally thought. Sometimes, it seems, that shaking the head can actually mean yes.

So, first part of the question - is there any easy way for me to find out in advance if I am likely to be visiting somewhere where a shake of the head may not mean what I expect?

Part two, for when I am in such a region - what techniques can I use to ensure that I've understood a nod or shake of the head, especially when dealing with someone where there's a language gap. (For example, a taxi driver who speaks only some English, and with a heavy accent, who may or may not have understood my destination)

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As an off-topic, my 1-year old always shakes his head in response to me nodding and saying "yes-yes-yes". –  Aleks G Aug 21 at 13:58
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VERY useful in India: youtube.com/watch?v=Uj56IPJOqWE –  MeNoTalk Aug 21 at 15:22

2 Answers 2

Wikipedia lists only a few countries where nodding and shaking are reversed: Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Albania. As a Bulgarian, I can tell you it can be quite confusing for foreigners: I've been living abroad for the last seven years or so, and in the beginning I caught a few puzzled looks when nodding or shaking: my mouth says one thing, but my head apparently another. It didn't take me long to switch to the "correct" way, but when I go back home, I'm sometimes perplexed myself when seeing somebody say one thing and shake/nod in opposition.

Speaking of how to recognize which is which: at least in Bulgaria, there are a few subtle differences which might give you a clue:

  • Nodding meaning "No" starts with head going downwards first, while normally one does the reverse. Nodding is also commonly accompanied by slight pouting.
  • In shaking meaning "Yes" the head doesn't go left-and-right only, but there's also a tilting motion to the side, i.e. the symmetry plane of the head is tilts with respect to the body, so that the head moves in a somewhat horizontal figure-8 trajectory. This kind of shaking is also more tentative than what one would do for a no-shake.

Generally people would subconsciously understand your nodding and shaking done the "correct" way without a fuss, but you might have problems understanding what they mean by their noggin motions.

Some finger gestures might be helpful (check first which ones are offensive in a given country, you might be surprised). In Bulgaria, thumbs-up for yes and shaking finger (or vigorously shaking head) for no should be fairly unambiguous.

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This is also confusing in India, where there's sort of a head "wag", which often looks like a shaking of the head (but not quite) to a Westerner, and can (in my understanding) generally mean acknowledgement of the speaker--not necessarily disagreement (or agreement!) with what is being said. –  Flimzy Aug 21 at 14:25
    
@Flimzy I agree, many a times Indian people nod their heads to showcase acknowledgement instead of agreement to something. It is also often used to showcase that your matters have been heard, and either you must wait or hear the other person as well.. –  Aditya Somani Aug 21 at 15:16
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To add to the confusion, the Greek word for "yes" is ναί, which sounds like "nay". –  200_success Aug 21 at 18:17

I believe that “thumb up” and “thumb down” works in most of the world. At least with people that have an incentive to understand you as you are spending money.

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… except in places where it's considered an obscene gesture. –  200_success Aug 21 at 18:19

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