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Visitors to South Asian countries, particularly India, are often taken aback by the head bobble, a familiar gesture with a range of innocuous meanings. On its face, this subtle roll of the head from side to side — seemingly floating free of the neck's constraints — often means "hello" or even agreement to a basic statement that was made. Others may use it, however, to express more nuanced meanings, like "maybe" or even outright anger and disgust.
Some call this slight traditional movement the Indian head shake, the Desi head bobble, or even the latter slang term's acronym, DHB. It is the eastern version of the westernized "yes," which entails moving the head up and down, not side to side. Some have theorized that the nuanced nature of its meaning is due to the Indian disavowal of looking too eager or assured about anything.
Acquiring the proper method of using the head bobble takes some practice for the uninitiated. Leading with the chin and not the top of the head is important, or else the movement will not be subtle enough. Some have described the proper motion as drawing a slight, flattened figure-eight with the chin, resulting in a bobble-like effect for the entire head.
With a smile and a simple exaggerated blink of the eyes, the most basic of the head bobble's meanings is easily understood. For example, someone may ask for a particular dish in a roadside food stand and instead of any verbal signal or nod, he or she may receive a simple bobble. The meaning is conveyed, and food is on the way. At the market, haggling could produce a subtle bobbing to mean that the agreed-upon price is acceptable.
An exaggerated number of bobbles, however, could reflect a more negative connotation. If the bobble is short, three or four passes of the chin, it likely means a yes. With more than five bobbles, the user could be trying to express dismay or doubt. The facial expression of the user — as well as the context — is key to understanding the exact meaning of the head bobble.
In a simple conversation, the head bobble could be used several times, with each time conveying a slightly different meaning. It could be used as a non-verbal hello, to express agreement to a basic statement, then again to express some form of dismay, doubt or malaise. Again, the expression of the user is key. If the head is bobbling and a smile is displayed, worry not; if the person is frowning, the conversation has taken a turn.
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