Countries where nodding up and down means "no"

I’ve read that Albania, Bulgaria and Iceland are countries where nodding up and down mean “no.” Are there any other countries who follow that custom?

Iceland? I’ve taken Icelandic lessons from a native speaker for three years, and have visited the island twice, and this is the first I’ve heard that they nod to mean “no”.

Greece, or at least Crete. Not really nodding, just moving the head up.

Perhaps my source of information was wrong.

Like Greece, a single nod up and down, often acompanied by a “tsk.”

On the other side, there’s shaking the head to indicate “Yes”

When I once went to Bangalore to meet with my offshore team members, I was constantly confused with their “body English” as we spoke. I would ask if they agreed with something or if they understood a particular technology point and they would say “Yes” while rocking their head side to side in a gesture that was not exactly the same as a North American “No” head shake, but close enough to make it disconcerting.

It is strange to sense the mixed signals—we consciously know what the speaker means, but the gesture doesn’t fit and the mismatch causes moments of pause.

Ah, yes, the famous Indian head wobble. It never looked like a “no” to me, but those unfamiliar with it usually have no idea what it means. It doesn’t necessarily mean “yes,” though. It’s a very flexible gesture. Sometimes it means something like “I acknowledge what you’re saying and I’m agreeing in principle, but I have no intention of doing anything about it.”

And Greece takes it a step further, by making sure their word for “yes” sounds like “no”, and the word for “no” sounds like “OK”. Talk about confusing for English speakers!


And it may very well have meant that.

As far as I can tell, they did what we asked. I was quite happy with my work with that team—in speaking with many colleagues who engage offshore staff, my case was the exception rather than the rule.

I get the impression that there aren’t any countries that seem to truly “shake their heads” to mean yes, or “nod” to mean no, at least in the way we think about those gestures. Indians sometimes wobble their heads to mean yes, but it’s not really that similar to shaking your head in the West. Similarly some countries lift their head to mean no, but it’s not really “nodding” - it’s more like sharply lifting your chin. Even over here it wouldn’t be hard to work out exactly what it means. Italians basically use the same gesture but they flick the underside of their chins at the same time to emphasize it.

I remember Desmond Morris’s book “Bodywatching” contended that human gestures like nodding/shaking to affirm or reject something all derive from gestures we naturally adopt as children - when a baby wants to refuse food, it tries to move its face away, resulting in it “shaking its head” or lifting its chin away. Similarly when a baby wants food it moves its mouth towards the food or its mother, resulting in a “nodding” motion. That instinctual basis - the book argued - is why the body gestures for yes/no are so broadly uniform across the world.

I’ve had Chinese students that will nod and say “Yes”, and there was one I met with after class and went over Photoshop lessons step-by-step … and then I’ve asked a classmate of hers if she understood. “Oh, no. She has no idea what you’re talking about.”

The nodding and agreements just meant “I can hear your words” and “I’m making you feel better about being a teacher!”

Thai people also do this. Smiling and nodding to mean anything up to and including “I will kill you in your sleep.” Takes some getting used to.

For those who can’t quite visualize:

As my father has become more deaf, he’s become more inclined to simply smile and nod at anyone talking to him. I think that he intends to convey sociability, he enjoys the company even if he’s not understanding a word that’s being said to him.

Desmond Morris made up a whole lot of shit, you bet.

What is your source?

Sheesh, I don’t recall. I read it in one of those trivia books a decade ago or so.

One of the first things I was taught when I became a teacher in Japan is that there is no point to asking “Do you understand?” as most students will say “Yes” regardless of whether they do or not.

This is the Asian “face” thing. They don’t want to be disagreeable or admit they do not understand. In order to avoid miscommunication, ask questions which cannot be answered by a simple “yes” or “no”.

I’ve heard that in Japan, “that would be difficult” means “it will never happen”.

Well sure, it’s not like it would be easy to prove that one way or the other anyway. But it is unusual that the nodding/shaking gestures are so broadly uniform across the world, and that’s the only good theory I’ve ever heard to explain why.