It was on my first visit to Europe that I was forced to think about the famous "Indian Head Shake". Until then, it was just an action that was used to show agreement, a slight shake of the head that came all so naturally, a paralinguistic code that I unconsciously adopted sometime in my growing years in India, and yet, did not define my Indianness. So when the group of Europeans I was with spoke about it and wobbled their heads from side to side all too awkwardly, I grinned at how ridiculous they looked. And for the first time in my thirty years of being Indian, I thought about it.
For those who haven't been exposed to this quintessential Indian code, the head shake I talk about involves a wobbling of the head (my European friends were, amusingly, quite accurate at reenacting it) from side to side, where the head tilts sideways to first one side and then to the other, the frequency of movement very much dependent on how much the person in question agrees with you. This, no doubt, can be very confusing to a novice amongst Indians. Uh, was that a yes, or a no?
The fact is that it is neither yes or no. The Indian head shake stands for an "ok". It is more an agreement than an affirmation. For example, if you asked an Indian if he was Indian, he wouldn't use the Indian head shake, but would simply nod. But (and this was a realisation for me too, as I excitedly explained to my foreign friends), if you asked him if you could refill his champagne glass, he would (lo and behold), use the head shake if he needed more. And here's the linguistic and paralinguistic difference. If you reworded your question to ask, "Do you want more champagne?", that is a question that invites a "yes" or "no" answer, and you would get a normal nod. If you asked, "Can I refill your champagne glass?", then you get the head shake. Go on and try it on your Indian friends.
Divya Susan Varkey is an Intercultural Communications Trainer and a scholar in Advanced Studies in Intercultural Communications at the University of Lugano, Switzerland.