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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Culture #1: Yes, no, maybe so – the vagaries of the Indian head wagging

The Indian head waggle is probably the most immediate, distinctive and confusing aspect of Indian culture encountered by a new arrival. You’ll encounter it in the shops; you’ll encounter it in the auto-rickshaws; you’ll probably encounter it getting off the plane in the airport. The motion itself is hard to describe. It is not a back and forth shake as in the Western “no” motion, but a fluid side-to-side tipping-rolling combo. It is like there is a ball bearing in the neck.

In any event, take my word on it, but it is definitely one of the most challenging communication issues I’ve faced. I will ask an auto-rickshaw driver if he knows where my destination is and he will wag his head. Does this mean yes? Does it mean OK? Does it mean he even understood what I just said? There doesn’t appear to be any sure-fire way of telling. What I’ve gleaned after 3 weeks is that it is meant to convey the full spectrum of “yes”, “OK” or “maybe”. It may mean “Thanks”. It may mean “sure, sure” or “got it”. Or it may only mean “I am listening, considering what you are saying, but neither particularly agree or disagree”. It may mean “I am only agreeing with you until I can conveniently slip away”. Whatever it means, it is definitely noncommittal. But then again, if someone around here verbally says “yes”, it should be taken as equally noncommittal. That’s just the way things are.

But monkey see, monkey do (and I’m a good monkey) - I find myself starting to mimic the motion on occasion, so even if I cannot describe properly what it means, I'm already subconsciously starting to pick up the habit. And as I get used to it, it does seemed to be useful. Even in North America the word “OK” has a similarly varied meaning from “Yes, Sir”, to “I tentatively agree, but am very dubious”, to “I am acknowledging that you just spoke because you appear to be wanting reassurance that I am listening, even if marginally” down to “you’re 2 loads short of a biscuit”. So, OK…maybe it’s not so different after all… [wag, wag]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to seeing that in person. Maybe you can send a video recording from your digital camera.

One thing that threw me here in the UK was how "cheers" means "thank you". No, really, it does. If you get someone a cup of tea they say "cheers" to you in gratitude.

Keep up the blogging!