The Head Shake: Why do I shake my head to say no?

The head shake from side to side is a globally recognized way of saying “no”. But why do we do it?

The origin of the head shake is thought to be derived from infanthood. Without the means of speech, a baby has to become an expert in conveying intentions with body language.

When a baby is fed, whether at the breast or otherwise, if the food is unwanted, the baby’s main way of indicating this is by turning the head away from the food to reject it. A parent’s attempt to give food often results in the baby turning his head one way in rejection, and upon further insistence of the parent pressing the food to the baby’s sideways facing head, he has no choice but to turn the head the other way in refusal. A good illustration of the video below:

Soon the head shake develops as a sign independent of feeding, to signify rejection, refusal or just plain “no”.

In some cultures, the head shake is substituted with a “head twist”, whereby the head is just moved to the left, or just to the right, and then the gesture stops abruptly. It’s like half a head shake. This is particularly common in parts of Ethiopia, and also is thought to originate from the rejection of food at infanthood.

Apart from saying “no”, shaking the head could also indicate disapproval or even bewilderment, depending on the cluster of body language signals accompanying the shaking head.

There are also other ways of saying “no” with body language, including the finger wag, and the “head toss”, whereby you are effectively recoiling at the statement and sticking your nose up at the idea (sometimes accompanied with rolling eyes and a disapproving click for extra effect!).

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3 Responses to The Head Shake: Why do I shake my head to say no?

  1. Pingback: The Head Shake: Why do I shake my head to say no? « virgo makes a stand.

  2. new says:

    and why in some places when you say “No” you move the head in vertical like in an affirmation?

  3. Lior says:

    Hi new, This vertical “no” is known as the “head toss” and is also known as the “Greek no” because it seems to be derived from Ancient Greece, and to this day is found around areas that were occupied by the Greeks in antiquity. The head toss is like an inverted nod. i.e. opposite of moving head down is tossing your head up, and therefore it makes sense that it means “no”. It also is a bit like recoiling away from something in disgust and sticking your nose up at it. To confuse things a bit, in some cultures, like amongst Maoris in New Zealand, and Dyaks of Borneo the head toss means yes!

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