December 29, 2012

The Head Nod

Exploring the masculine gesture of acknowledgement, a curious phenomenon.

A few weeks ago, I was walking from one class to another when I made eye contact with a former classmate. We both simultaneously nodded downwards as we tightened our lips.

Without saying a word we each said hello to one another.

We’re not friends or anything; I couldn’t remember the guy’s name if I had to, but I did recognize him, and felt it was necessary to acknowledge him.

That brief encounter got me thinking. Why do I do that? Why did he do that? Why do us, men, do that? So began the research.

In my futile search through the innerwebs I learned a few interesting things. There are several record labels and recording studios that have “head nod” incorporated into their name one way or another. There are some YouTube videos that attempt to take on the phenomenon, and even a Facebook page! Also, it’s a pilates exercise.

Yeah, nodding your head is an exercise, who knew? But I digress.

As I got to class I pondered the phenomenon of the head nod when I realized something. I used to do the head nod upwards when I was a kid, but as I’ve grown and matured it is now a downward nod. Strange…

In my mind, the upward nod is more juvenile and fun. It’s a little younger looking, and probably couldn’t be passed off in a corporate setting without receiving a strange look in response or being talked about in the break room. The downward nod, on the other hand, is more serious. It’s more gentlemanlike and respectable.

But why?

I don’t know. That’s why. If anyone does, please share below.

Not all men do it though. There are the shy timid people who prefer not to make eye contact. They probably walk to the opposite side of the sidewalk and whip out their phone in order to avoid the opportunity of a nod or look behind them just as you pass one another in some awkward attempt to make sure no one is following them. (That drives me nuts.)

The head nod is a worldwide gesture though. In passing it’s just a gesture of acknowledgement in western culture, but that’s subject to change around the world depending on the context. The common western side-to-side headshake to signify ‘No’ is used by Bulgarians to say ‘Yes’

In most cultures the Head Nod is used to signify ‘Yes’ or agreement. It’s a stunted form of bowing – the person symbolically goes to bow but stops short, resulting in a nod. Bowing is a submissive gesture so the Head Nod shows we are going along with the other person’s point of view. Research conducted with people who were born deaf, dumb and blind, shows that they also use this gesture to signify ‘Yes’, so it appears to be an inborn gesture of submission.

In India, the head is rocked from side to side, called the Head Wobble, to signal ‘Yes’. This is confusing for Westerners and Europeans, who use this gesture to communicate ‘Maybe yes – maybe no’.”

It’s strange to me that we’re not taught to do this; we’ve just been doing it our whole lives. It’s not like when we were kids our parents told us ‘nod at the man, son’ we were told to ‘say Hello to the man, son’.

Image Credit: Vlue / Shutterstock

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