How to Tilt Your Head Like an Indian

How To: A well-placed "Namaste" or "As-Salaam-Alaikum" might get a conversation started in India, but subtly tilting your head is the subcontinent's secret to real communication. Kavita Pillay explains the motion that speaks a thousand words.

01.30.06 | 3:36 PM ET

imageThe situation: You’ve just arrived in Delhi and want to catch an auto rickshaw across town. You hail one, but instead of offering a verbal answer to your request, the driver tips his head from side to side and slowly blinks. From the neck up, the gesture is inscrutable. But he’s waving his hand for you to get in. Confusion prevails. A head-tilting tutorial is in order.

Background: At its most graceful, there’s something Stevie Wonder-esque in the Indian head tilt—an easy rhythmic sway that, once familiar, can prove soothing and even addictive. You could devote a lifetime to learning any of the hundreds of languages that have evolved on the Indian subcontinent. But from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, the metronome-like head tilt offers a universal means of communication. Interpreting and replicating this single non-verbal cue offers you more than just a way to be understood while in India—it’s a chance to employ a unique gesture familiar to one sixth of humanity.

What not to do: Head-tilting neophytes often mistakenly assume that the movement starts at the top of the head, resulting in a jerky and unnatural motion.

The basics: The secret is to lead with your chin. To practice, stand in front of a mirror with your head in a neutral position. Using your chin to control the movement, allow your head to fall slightly to one side. The angle between your head’s neutral position and the tilt should be no more than 15 degrees (just the slightest of dips).

Return to neutral and repeat the motion on the opposite side. Make your movements from one side to the other gentle rather than springy, as if your head were suspended in fluid.

When to tilt: Since head-tilting often acts as a non-verbal “Uh huh,” it can replace a spoken confirmation as well as convey that you are listening to the speaker. To show enthusiasm during a conversation, smile and ramp up the speed of your tilting.

How often: Four tilts of your head are sufficient for conveying “Yes” (two to the right and two to the left, alternating from side to side).

A tilt’s many meanings: In its myriad iterations, the Indian head nod can mean “Yes,” “Nice to meet you” and “I agree to the price you have just mentioned.” It can also mean “Maybe,” “Hell no,” and “You are the enemy of intelligence.” Interpreting the meaning requires time, practice, a little self-effacement and a lot of humor. With a little practice, South African Wendy John found it made all the difference. “For me,” she said, “head tilting became a way to actually connect with people and for them to see that I’m locally attuned.”

Advanced technique: At a music or dance performance, the gesture of slowly shaking your head from side to side in what equates to a Western “No” can be employed to express wonder at the talent on stage. For the full effect, close your eyes and exclaim “Kya bhat hai!”—Hindi for “How beautiful!”

Photographs by Mike Scahill

Kavita Pillay is a Boston-based filmmaker currently residing in India as a Fulbright Scholar.

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