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If you have ever spent time interacting with Indians, you are likely familiar with the Indian head bobble. Also referred to as the Indian head wobble, waggle, or simply, the nod, I have come to find this uniquely Indian form of communication to be quite endearing. The head bobble involves holding one’s neck straight while tilting the head left to right, right to left, diagonally. This action is commonly used in all types of communication throughout India.

In restaurants, servers will indicate they’ve understood your order with a head bobble. In shops, it is how a proprietor might agree to a price after some haggling. I’ve seen a grandfather waggle his happy thank you for a cup of tea, and for “pleased to meet you.” I have also seen many-a-child nod this way in nonverbal response to a whole assortment of situations: Yes, I’d like the cookie; OK, I’ll do my homework, and in answer to the questions: Do you like it? Are your parents here? Will you play jump rope with me? And, Do you know why you’re in trouble?

The problem for Americans, and many others, is that it looks as though Indians are always telling us “No,” because it looks very similar to the way we shake our own heads “No.” Imagine ordering some Chicken Tikka Masala with Naan and having someone shake their head at you in response, almost like they’re saying “No.” What do you mean I can’t order the delicious Chicken Tikka Masala and Naan?!? I have thought to myself more than once.

As my husband and I have hosted people in India throughout the last two decades, I’ve described the head bobble as being most like our American penchant for saying, “uh-huh,” in conversation. We say “uh-huh” to communicate that we are following, we understand. Uh-huh means, “I’m with you. Keep going.” Indians just do this silently, and by bobbling their heads.

[If you still feel uncertain about what I’m describing, and are a culturally curious individual, I’d suggest the following delightful clip.]

In fact, many foreigners who travel to India come away from their visit having acquired the new skill of head-bobbling- whether they wanted to or not. I recently realized that I am one of those foreigners, and it surprised me because I’ve never thought of myself as a big head-bobbler. But listen to what happened to me last month.

My son’s birthday was coming up and he wanted me to make his favorite breakfast sandwich for his friends after a sleepover. Now, this sandwich is his own invention, and ever so creatively named, the Egg Sandwich. [If you are breakfast-ly curious: toast half a plain bagel, butter it, slather it in either red or green salsa from Mi Favorita Grocery in Holland, MI, and then top it with a fried egg. It is really quite tasty.] The complicated part is getting the salsa.

The first time that my son and his buddy went to buy the salsa, they were gone more than three hours by foot. The store is 1 mile away. That was an adventure none of us will ever forget, and many fantastic breakfast sandwiches were the result.

The next time we got the salsa, for the sleepover, I drove my son over to Mi Fav, as most Hollanders call it. We spent some time wandering the small shop on a busy Saturday afternoon, and picked up the salsa and a few novelty items only to be found in a Mexican Grocery. At the register, the cashier was on the phone. She rang us up, I paid, and she said, “Listo,” to me. I know enough Spanish to understand that she was telling me I was all set.

What did I do?

Well, in order to not interrupt her phone call, and I promise you, entirely out of instinct, I responded with a polite (Indian) head bobble. She did not understand. She then paused her phone call and made an effort to explain, in English, that we were all through. I could leave. I then knew that I had unwittingly confused her with the unusual (and unintentional) head shake.

Somehow, the recent celebration of America’s Independence has me thinking about this, about the rich opportunities that exist within our country to see culture at play. America has become her own independent place, formed into a country thriving with culture(s)- often just right around the corner.

In response to my theory that a vibrant and varied American Culture easily exists just around the corner, there are probably more than a handful of feelings. I, however, think it is AWESOME that any ol’ day of the week, I can drive a mile to the Mexican Grocery and offer the attendant an authentic Indian head bobble, straight out of my gawky, white-girl heart. That is the America I am eager to live in.

Really, anyone who likes to travel the world, brag about how Americans are a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps society, and maybe even those who consider the melting pot passé- maybe you like the Salad Bowl image instead?- we must all open our minds to a new kind of America. In today’s America we ought to thrill to the challenge of becoming more culturally competent. Consider that the bombs we heard bursting through the air all week long were being burst by all kinds of Americans celebrating their independent homeland.

Gone are the days when shunning those who are different from us, or squawking over the discomfort of dissimilar neighbors, or even rolling an eye over a cultural practice unlike your own.

Jump from the nest if you can. Taste-test a new breakfast sandwich. Goof around with a head bobble- it isn’t nearly as easy as you might think- and try, however awkwardly, to communicate in a new way to someone beyond your comfort zone. Broaden your own perspective one grocery run at a time. And call it all what it is: a small ounce of grace.

Fireworks photo by Zoltán Cse on Unsplash

Indian girl photo by Loren Joseph on Unsplash

Shopping cart photo by Eduardo Soares on Unsplash

Katy Sundararajan

Katy enjoys writing here at the Reformed Journal about the small things that give us pause and point us to great wonder, the things that make our hearts glad and remind us of where our hope comes from. You can find more of Katy’s writing through Words of Hope free daily devotionals, and in Guideposts’ All God’s Creatures: Daily Devotions for Animal Lovers. Give Katy a good book, a pretty view, or a meal around the table with laughing people and she’ll say, “All is well.”


  • Bruce Buursma says:

    My tastebuds are aroused and my heart is gladdened. And I’m nodding in star-spangled accord.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    And I hear, “Ha Padri!”

  • Sarah unzicker says:

    Right on Katy! As you know, we say in Japan, “peachy, potchi, poochi!
    Sarah Unzicker

  • Christopher Poest says:

    Gracias, Katy.

  • RZ says:

    I like your conclusion, Katy. Today, and perhaps always, we have a new kind of racism, better described as exceptionalism. You may be part of “us” and even have rights, but only if you assimilate and acquiesce. Your race is not the problem so much as your attitude. You must be grateful for what “we” are giving you. You must accept and forget the past: colonialism, slavery, discrimination, all part of the manifest destiny package. Get over it. Love it or leave it. Loyalty and patriotism are non-negotiables. Leave your hoodie, your language, your prayer mat and your culture at the door.

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