The Nod: Why does the head nod mean yes?

The head nod meaning is almost universal throughout the planet, meaning “yes”. Why does a nod mean yes?

There are three main theories:

Theory 1:
Before babies can talk, they have to use body language to indicate their desires. As a baby seeks his mother’s breast to feed, the searching movements of the head can resemble a head nod.

Similarly, when a baby wants something, they tend to bob up and down in their seat with an accompanying head nod. This usually signals, “Yes! I want!!”

Theory 2:
Part of the head nod involves bowing down your head momentarily. This led to the theory that head nodding may relate to bowing down in respect and submission. When you accept what the other person is saying, you are effectively bowing down to their words in acceptance, as you would bow down to a King or Queen in acceptance of them as Royalty.

The bowed head as a sign of submission is used also to appease a threat. The nod doesn’t always mean “yes”. Sometimes it also means “Go on..” or “I’m interested to hear more”.

It is seen sometimes in animals. For example, have you ever seen pigeons doing their mating ritual? If not, take a look at this videos:

Their mating ritual involves a period of insistent head bowing by the pursuer. Why? In part it reduces the risk of the pursued responding aggressively to their advances by saying, “I lower myself to you. I have lower status. I am no threat”. In other words, it calms and appeases the pursued pigeon. Some tortoise species also have this head nodding as part of their mating ritual. This may be linked to the reason why head nodding is considered a submissive behaviour in humans.

Perhaps in animal mating rituals it also says, “I’m interested in you and am trying to appease you so you will accept me”. In this context, it makes sense that head nodding conveys inter-human interest too.

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In some cultures different gestures are used to convey different types of “yes”.

In India, it is common to give the head wobble as a sign you are listening. Amongst Western people this can look a bit like a head shake which leads to some miscommunication.

In Bulgaria, when they want to show you they are listening to you, they shake their heads, as if saying “no”. What they are actually doing is showing you their ears, saying “I’m all ears. I’m listening”. This has led to much cross-cultural confusion.

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One Response to The Nod: Why does the head nod mean yes?

  1. Olly says:

    Very cool , cheers.

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