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Cracking India’s mystifying ‘nod code’

[2018年8月18日] 来源:BBC双语阅读 作者:查鲁克斯o拉马多莱(Charukesi Ramadurai)   字号 [] [] []  

In Thanjavur city, in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, street markets are flooded with a particular type of bobblehead toy. It is known in Tamil as the Thanjavur Thalaiyatti Bommai, literally meaning The Head Shaking Doll of Thanjavur. The brightly painted clay bommai, usually the figure of a classical dancer or an old couple as a set, comes in two parts: the full body and the head that sits loosely on a small hinge extending up from the neck. A slight tap on the head, or even a vigorous breeze, can set off the head shaking from side to side in an almost circular fashion.

It is somewhat like an infinity sign, or a numeral eight lying down

This is the closest imitation of the unique Indian gesture that often leaves visitors to the country flummoxed. One thing all travellers to India talk about – apart from the dreaded Delhi Belly, of course – is the great Indian head nod. It’s not exactly a nod (up and down from the neck, meant to indicate ‘yes’) – or a shake (straight side to side to convey ‘no’). It’s a smooth movement that involves tilting the head from side to side vertically, either gently or fiercely.

The great nod is also called the Indian head wobble, bobble, waggle or the headshake. It is not a jerky or firm motion, but even and continuous; one that Priya Pathiyan, a Mumbai-based writer who conducts guided tours in her city for visitors, describes as “somewhat like an infinity sign, or a numeral eight lying down”.

There are pages of writing devoted to it on the internet, not to mention demonstration videos, to demystify it for the traveller. A casual search on YouTube throws up dozens of enthusiasts – both Indians and foreigners – attempting to explain the Indian head nod. A few years ago, one such video even went viral, attracting more than a million views in just a week.

Does it mean a clear yes? Is that a kind no? A maybe? A sign of uncertainty? Annoyance perhaps? It is difficult to say without knowledge of the context. Pathiyan thinks that it is almost always a ‘yes’, or at least indicates agreement. “There is also an element of being friendly or being respectful, and it is difficult to say exactly which unless you know the situation,” she added.

Margot Bigg, a British-American travel writer who lived in India for more than five years and has written guidebooks on the country, is of the opinion that different types of head nods mean different things. “Like a one-stroke side nod could mean ‘yes’ or ‘let’s go’, while a more consistent back-and-forth bobble is an acknowledgment of understanding.”

In my own experience, the faster the shake, the more enthusiastic the agreement – especially when used with raised eyebrows for added emphasis. But, on the other hand, it could also be used to convey “Ok… whatever you say…”; an indifferent shoulder shrug without actually shrugging the shoulders.

However, there is more to the Indian head wobble than just a cultural quirk passed through the generations. In renowned cultural scientist Geert Hofstede’s exhaustive research on cultural norms across different countries, India scored 77 on the dimension of Power Distance – the extent to which people expect and accept power inequalities within their own society – compared to a world average of 56.5. This high score indicates a deep respect for hierarchy and limited scope for disagreement with those considered superior in any way.

Having lived all my life in this country, I can confirm that Indians are brought up to be pliant and polite, especially to guests and to elders, and do not like to say ‘no’ directly. We mumble incoherently, we smile sheepishly, we nod vaguely, all to put off making a firm commitment. Indeed, the head nod is a gesture meant to convey ambiguity, and does so effectively.

Rather than outright refusal, I buy time by being deliberately vague

Pradeep Chakravarthy, a writer from Chennai and a corporate behaviour consultant, says that this gesture is the Indian way of both dealing with grey areas and leaving the door open in all major and minor relationships.

“In the traditional agrarian economy such as the one in India, you don’t openly convey refusal or disagreement with any other person in the community,” he said. “Because you never know when you will need their help, and saying no means cutting off a relationship completely.”

Chakravarthy elaborated on the absolute formality of relationships and hierarchies in Indian society, which means that people often find themselves in situations where saying ‘no’ is just not possible. These would typically be interactions with bosses at work, elders within the family or leaders in the community. In these cases, this vague movement comes through as the perfect compromise, allowing the viewer to interpret what they want, while leaving wriggle room for the speaker.

As Chakravarthy puts it: “I know I can’t do it, but I can’t say no either. So rather than outright refusal, I buy time by being deliberately vague.”

In theory, this seems like a recipe for all-round happiness, but it often leads to great confusion and exasperation. While this is true mainly for cross-cultural interactions, such as when foreign bosses deal with their Indian employees or when a tourist tries to bargain with a street vendor, it sometimes has the same effect on Indians, even those who use the action themselves in other situations.

So, despite all those explanatory videos, it is not as if Indians come with a ready key to cracking the nod code. I often find myself wanting to scream, “What exactly are you saying?” The American sitcom Outsourced – purportedly set in a Mumbai call centre – even devoted space in an episode to discussing this action.

As much as we’d like to deny it, this gesture is ingrained in Indians, passed on through heredity

Love it or hate it, play along with it or stay perplexed, but it is impossible to ignore this nod while in India. Most Indians aren’t even aware they’re doing it, and many travellers to India find themselves imitating it after a time. Anita Rao Kashi, a journalist from Bangalore, said to me, “As much as we’d like to deny it, this gesture is ingrained in Indians, passed on through heredity.”

Bigg also admitted to doing the nod without realising it, particularly when she speaks in Hindi. “I’ve had Western visitors notice that I do it and point it out to me, but it’s so much part of my natural code switching that I’m not at all aware of it,” she said.

As a lifelong resident of India, I have a word of advice for those seeking to crack the Indian cultural code. When you encounter the wobble, respond with a wobble of your own; you may just end up making a friend for life.

在印度南部泰米尔纳德邦(Tamil Nadu)的坦贾武尔市(Thanjavur),街头摊档上摆满着一种很特殊的摇头玩具,在泰米尔语中被称为Thanjavur Thalaiyatti Bommai,字面意思是坦贾武尔摇头娃娃。这种陶土制作的娃娃绘上明亮的彩漆,造型通常是一位古典舞者或是一对老年夫妻。娃娃分为两部分:一个完整的躯体和一个头部,头部松松地套在从颈部延伸出来的链柱上。只要轻轻敲击头部,甚至一阵微风吹过,都能使头部摇摆晃动,像在空中划着圆圈。

这个娃娃的形象最能代表独特的印度人与人交谈的姿势,经常让来到这个国家的异乡人困惑不已。所有到过印度的游客都会谈论一件事——当然,除了德里腹泻(Delhi Belly,来印度的游客常因水土不服而腹泻)之外——那就是著名的印度式点头。其实这并不是准确的点头姿势(点头指脖子上的脑袋上下摆动,表示'是'的意思),也不是摇头姿势(直线型的左右摇摆,传达'不'的意思)。这是一个平滑的动作,将脑袋从一侧向另一侧垂直倾斜,轻轻地或猛烈地晃动。

这个著名的印度点头动作也被称为印度式摆头、晃头、抖头或摇头。这个动作做起来不那么生硬,也不坚定,而是平稳连续的摇头晃脑。带旅行团参观孟买的本地作家派斯颜(Priya Pathiyan)这样描述这个动作:"有点像一个无穷大符号∞,或者是躺着的数字8"。


这个动作是否意味着明确的肯定?或是表明拒绝?是可能的意思吗?或者是不确定?抑或表达厌烦?如果没有对话场景,很难说明这个动作到底代表什么。派斯颜认为,印度式点头几乎总是在表达"是",或者至少表示赞同。她说, "这个动作还意味着友好和尊重,但除非你知道当时的情景,否则很难准确说清楚。"

比格(Margot Bigg)是一位英国裔美国旅行作家,曾在印度生活了五年多,还撰写了印度旅游指南。他认为,不同类型的头部摇摆方式表达不同的意思。 "一气呵成的侧向点头可能意味着'是'或'走吧',而一致地来回摇摆则表示理解。"



然而,印度式摇头晃脑并不仅仅是一种代代相传的文化怪癖。著名文化学家霍夫斯泰德(Geert Hofstete)对不同国家的文化习俗展开了详尽的研究,印度在权力距离(Power Distance,衡量一个社会民众对社会权利不平等之容忍和接受程度的尺度)上的得分是77,远高于世界平均水平的56.5分。这一高分表明,印度社会根深蒂固地遵守等级现象,敢对位高权重者表达异议的程度非常有限。


来自印度南部城市清奈(Chennai)的作家兼企业行为顾问查克(Pradeep Chakravarthy)说,这个姿势是印度人处理灰色地带的方式,为建立所有大大小小的人际关系敞开了大门。

查克说,"在传统的农业经济体中,例如印度,你不会公开对社区中的其他人表示拒绝或表达不同意见。 因为你永远不知道自己什么时候需要这些人的帮助,而说不则意味着完全终止了相互往來。"





因此,尽管有各种各样的视频解释印度式摆头的含义,但并不是说印度人自己有现成的方式来破解摆头的秘密。我经常发现自己忍不住想尖叫,"你到底在说什么?"美国情景喜剧《外包生活》(Outsourced)故意把情景设在孟买传呼中心(call centre, 24小时为客户提供英语服务),甚至有一集专门讨论了摆头这个动作。

不管是否喜欢,不管是用来表达赞同还是困惑,在印度都不可能忽视这个动作。大部分印度人做这个动作时根本就是无意识,许多来印度的游客过了一段时间后,也发现自己在模仿。来自班加罗尔的记者卡什(Anita Rao Kashi)对我说:"尽管我们不想承认,但这个姿态已经根深蒂固地深入到印度人的血液里,通过遗传代代相承。"



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