How did nodding your head up and down come to be interpreted as “agreement” and nodding side to side as “disagreement” or denial across so many cultures?


How did nodding your head up and down come to be interpreted as “agreement” and nodding side to side as “disagreement” or denial across so many cultures?

In: Other

One suggestion is that the negative shake comes from the way a baby turns it’s head away when offered food or the nipple when it doesn’t want it.

There are two common theories. One is that it’s a natural human reaction we’re born with, like smiling. Even people who are born blind smile when they’re happy, in spite of never seeing another person do it to mimic. It isn’t unthinkable that something as simple as indicating yes and no are innate features that get culturally reinforced throughout our lives.

Another thought is that the gesture developed early in human civilization, like early enough that human civilization was a couple tribes of hunters and gatherers, and just didn’t change much as we spread across the world. Also not unthinkable, considering that it’s one of the most basic forms of communication two humans can have, and the basics last longer as language changes.

Trade international trade has been going on as long as civilisations and cultures had far more contact than many people realise so ideas and body language moved rapidly across continents and a single accepted meaning was used to avoid confusion.

I’d like to add the following theory:
In many social structures (inter-human and inter-animal) if you are being looked at you lower your head and gaze in order to show submission. Of you don’t look at somebody by lowering your gaze the opponent can do what ever he wants, bite you, walk away, turn around and start tea-bagging you – anything is possible – by lowering your gaze you show that you are OK with what ever the communication partner is doing or planning to do.

By lowering your gaze you “accept” by submission.

From the plain lowering of the gaze a more elaborate down and up movement might have developed to be able constantly or repeatedly show your agreement.

Also one might notice that nodding starts with the down motion and then the head comes up again, even doing this only once is a sign of agreement.

If you nod up and then down its more a sign of alertness (up -> alert, down again -> recognition or relaxation) and following relaxation…

First you should check out the Indian head shake. This code you mention is not universal.

Second, I think thisnis transversal to dogs and other creatures which is very interesting.

Third, and following second, I think i the negative might come from taking your nose away from something, or looking away. Imagine I offer you food, you smell it and shake your nose away from it.

I’ll throw this in but it is something I read years ago and am not really sure about it.

The nod was used by Egyptian people and the Egyptian people were really really into sun worship. People would move their head up and down to signify yes because the sun is high in summer: summer gives life, is good (yes). They would move their head side to side to imitate the low, horizon hugging winter sun: winter takes life, is bad (no).

I like the theory, but it’s likely BS.