The Indian Head Wobble – what it means and how to do it

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Its always polite to learn a few words of the local language when you are traveling, in India the most popular language is actually the Indian Head Wobble. Here is a short guide to the Indian Head Wobble, what it means and how to do it.

The head wobble is one of the untold many unofficial languages of India, a dialect that crosses all local and international boundaries. Of all the languages of India, the Head Wobble is the best known and most loved form of communication. Scientists have discovered that Indian babies are known to head wobble in the womb!

I once watched an entire conversation go down as two men passed each other in a South Indian street. The first guy wobbled his head with his eyes fixed on his friend, and smiled slightly. The other man wobbled his head and smiling, raised eyebrows raised in a question mark. “Everything good?” The first man wobbled his head back in a wordless “Can’t complain” and then raised his eyebrows in question, stilling the head wobble somewhat as he waited for the responding head wobble from his friend. The second man sighed, wobbled his head and shrugged his shoulders a little. Both men reached out as is to touch hands in passing but they were too far away for that to happen, it was the physical equivalent of a cyber-handshake.

Head wobbling is used to answer questions, to encourage the talker to continue, to confer agreement, to acknowledge the waiter who has just delivered your meal, as in “yes, yes, please continue and thank you.” Head wobbling is also used to soften the blow of a negative answer as in “No or I don’t agree with you or it’s totally out of my hands.” Head wobbling is also used in place of a conversation as in the two guys on the street.

Here are a few interpretations of the modern Indian Head Wobble

A Head Wobble accompanied by a blank stare

This usually takes place when you are on one side of a desk or counter and someone in a uniform is on the other side. You can expect to get this head wobble when you have asked an unreasonable question such as a request for a specific fact (for example “How Long will the journey take?”) or for a special favour such as “Can you make an exception to the rule just for me?”

The Head Wobble Accompanied by a Blank Stare means “I cannot take responsibility for issuing facts, my job is to issue tickets/ forms/ only.” Or it can mean “I am amenable or not amenable to requests of this nature depending on who you may know within this organisation who may be able to get me to bend the rules for you.”

The Head Wobble accompanied by a Blank Stare is diplomacy in action; it means “We don’t like to give negative answers in India so I will give you a Head Wobble instead.”

The Head Wobble accompanied by the eyes downward

indian head wobble

You are most likely to see this head wobble practised by women when being addressed by a man or a mother in law. It can usually be taken to mean “Ok, ok, enough already. You will have your way and I will adjust BUT I DON’T HAVE TO LIKE IT.”

How to Do the Indian Head Wobble

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Many phoreners attempt the Indian Head Wobble with varying degrees of success. The most common mistake is to over wobble. There is no need to wag your head as if it were the tail of an overexcited puppy. The Indians will not tell you that you have got the Head Wobble all wrong, they will just notice that you are trying.

Do not attempt the Indian head wobble until you have practiced in front of a mirror.
Keep your eyes still and your facial expression neutral, as you tilt your head side to side leading from the temples only. This is the standard Indian head wobble and is used as non-verbal encouragers. After you have managed the first part of the head wobble, feel free to introduce eyebrow movements.
People will not tell you that you have the Head Wobble all wrong. They will just notice that you are trying.

More advanced Head Wobblers can try this exercise. Arrange to pass a friend in the street and see if you can conduct entire conversation that consists of raised eyebrows and head wobbles.

Chumbak_Bobble_Heads_CBH001_M_1_2x-f3d7cImages and cute little head wobbling dollies from Chumbak