Head Gestures: Head Nod, Head Shake

Stefan Speaks

Stefan Speaks


Table of Contents

Hi there and welcome to the series where we shall deepen our understanding of head movements and how they’re manifested.

Head gestures reveal the way we see things and how we feel about them. As the sensory center of our body, the head turns towards the things we like, and away from the things we want to avoid.

Truth is, it’s quite instinctive to “get it” when it comes to the meaning of head gestures. We know that a nod means a ‘yes’ and shaking the head means a ‘no’ (most of us anyway).

We also learned to recognize many other more subtle movements subconsciously, meaning we get a certain feedback from them but often if we were asked why is that so – we couldn’t say.

I’ll give an example that can illustrate this point perfectly. Suppose you’re trying to convince  your boss with a new idea you have for a product (just pretend) – you’re enthusiastic and animated – you make the best to sell your idea. Your boss, however, doesn’t say a single word during your presentation – he just sits there and stares at you, at the end of your presentation he just mention that he’ll consider it.

Do you think he bought your sales pitch? Of course not.

But how can you explain why is that so? Because if you relying solely on his words it can either mean a positive or negative reaction. Understanding body language gives you the edge – you’ll know to recognize the nonverbal signals happening during the presentation, interpret them as positive or negative and change your strategy before the final chord is played.

let’s start with something basics that are easy to remember and implement:

What Head Gestures Tell us

Not to overcomplicate things, head gestures are mainly telling us 2 things:

  1. How someone is agreeable and in rapport with us
  2. How engaged, enthusiastic and committed they are to the current event, and if they’re not – where their true interest lies.

With these two things in mind you can figure out many combination of attitudes:

  • Animated and rhythmic head-nods show agreement and understanding.
  • Erratic head movements with frequent eye glances to the sides show discomfort and stress. This person clearly doesn’t want to be where he is and he seeks help or escape route from another direction.
  • Slow head shake shows disbelief or uncertainty towards a remark being said. “I just can’t believe it…”. If it was a faster head shaking it was a decisive “no”.

Just think about it as 2 set of scales:

  • Positive vs Negative
  • Animated vs Still.

Now that we get that, let’s get to more specifics:

Head Thrust and Head Retreat

When it comes to priorities, our head is definitely at the top. Our brain is a very egoistic organ, if it feels threatened or lacking blood or oxygen he automatically cuts off the supply and protection from other organs to support itself.

Note: this is why we faint – it’s a defensive mechanism that forces us to lay down – so blood can get more easily to the brain!

We guard our head with vigilance. When we’re about to fall we won’t think twice – we will instinctively push our hands forward to protect the most precious our head, even at the expense of injury to the hands.

This sort of attitude is seen in these 2 opposite head gestures:

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Head Thrust 

When we’re extremely angry we thrust our head forward, ready for battle like a predator locked on his pray. We neglect our self defense and focus on the attack, some people won’t hesitate to use their head as a weapon and headbutt their opponent.

Head Retreat 

Just think of a turtle retreating back into the safety of his house. We do that when we’re afraid and defensive, obviously, but also when we feel negatively towards what’s happening – we back away from what we don’t like.

Meaning it’s aggressiveness and action  vs defensiveness and retreat

Try this: suppose your friend tells you a story and you hear something unlikable\ unbelievable\ strange – the reaction of your head tells your friend how you truly feel about his story. If you thrust forward – it’s an aggressive but more engaged and perhaps emphatic reaction (like saying “I can’t believe it, let’s deal with it right away!”) if your head retreats it show disbelief and incredulity (“I don’t buy this…”)

Head Tilt

I heard many theories about the meaning of the head tilt, that if you tilt to your right side you look more intelligent and if you tilt to your left you look more attractive and other somewhat strange “facts”. I don’t know much about it frankly, and in my honest opinion,  it’s impractical to remember and use.

What it can tell us is when our listener is intrigued and engaged with our words, when we have his\her attention. Just like a dog would look at you when you make a funny sound – the “what’s up?” look.

It also means that this person is quite comfortable with us because this is a display of a laidback attitude.

I’ll like to think about it as if the head tilt allows the listener to literally have a different point of view on what’s he just heard or seen…

The kind of interest and attention can be diverse and depends upon the context:

  • An interviewer who tilts his head and nods signals the interviewee to continue speaking, he finds his message important.
  • It can be a sympathetic gesture of interest: “are you ok? You don’t look so well…”
  • Head tilt with a momentary glance to the side is an evaluation signal especially when it’s combined with the hand touching the cheek or chin.
  • In courtship the head tilt shows playful and engaged attitude, it’s shows interest but also a tease (especially when it’s combined with a half smile and sideways glance)
  • A head tilt up and to the side reveals surprise or disbelief: “wow…really?”

And the list goes on. In general it’s a positive sign because it means our listener is in tune with us and we have his attention. This makes a head tilt a great tool in your repertoire – use it more often to create rapport or to show involvement.

Head Nod

Now now, before you start arguing that it’s no brainer – a nod is a nod and it’s simply means yes, end of story. Let me argue that it’s only the beginning…

The nod means almost universally – “yes, I agree” or “I understand”.

But what about the small details?

Can they tell us something more? How often you nod, how you nod, and where you look when you nod can tell a lot more than just that it’s a sign of agreement or comprehension.

Besides, if you start thinking about the head nod as a tool – you can effectively use it to control the flow of conversation and signal the other party what do you truly think about what they say without uttering a word.

So, are you ready to get a little deeper?


How to Build Rapport

Let’s talk about rapport for a second.

It’s important for us as social animals to look for some common ground with those who surround us – we want to feel part of a group.

We instinctively want to feel similar to others (or to find others that are similar to us) so we can be accepted and understood by them.

This rationale has a big effect on our behavior and is very evident in our body language in what called isoprxism or mirroring.

This is the behavior of copying each other body language when we feel “chemistry” and rapport with them. I won’t go into detail about it in this article, but I mention this because the head nod is one of the signals to show this synchrony between people.

Nodding is addictive, when we talk about something that is important to us – we nod and expect the other party to nod back – it’s a feedback mechanism to see if we’re all on the same page.

This is also true when we want to show sympathy and enthusiasm towards others, it’s an appeasement gesture, just like the smile.

Of course, this happens on a subconscious level, it’s so addictive that it’s hard to resist not to nod when the other party does.

So what happens when we don’t? A perfectly still head signals the other party that:

  • A. We didn’t get it
  • B. We don’t agree
  • C. Even if we agree we don’t really like them at the moment.

Try this with a good friend: j

  1. Just hold your head still and maintain a steady eye contact.
  2. Don’t move your head no matter what.
  3. You’ll notice most likely that after a few moments they will start nodding and tilting their head to encourage you (unaware of course) to do the same.
  4. If you’ll continue to resist, their frustration will escalate up to a level that they will try to investigate what happened or simply lose interest in the conversation.

Rhythm , Length and Gaze

OK so I mentioned there are different ways to nod, and if you think about – you never nod the same way, especially in the same conversation, otherwise you’ll  look just like an head bobble figure.

First of all let’s talk about the speed and rhythm of the nod – how quick and animated it is:

  • Slow and lengthy nods usually show agreement and understanding, they’re not urging you to finish talking. “Take your time I’m listening”
  • Small nods combined with a smile is an encouraging and bonding signal.
  • Fast rapid nod, especially if the listener is touching his ear or rubs his face,  show impatience and urge you to move on or let them do the talking. “yeah I got it, let’s move on”
nod of approvalImage Source

Now the direction 

The head is the center of your sensors and therefore will point itself to see, hear and smell more of what it likes and move away from the things it doesn’t like.

So if people don’t look at you while they nod it can mean that they’re distracted and nod only for show


It can also mean that they’re still thinking about something you said earlier.  It’s hard to think deeply and maintain eye contact, it’s their “processing” time.

Don’t take it personally and often allow your listener a few moments of reflection, or just clarify your words.

Head Beckoning

It’s a quick dip of the head downwards or a little toss of the head backwards, usually to signal recognition.

It’s a nonverbal way of greetings when shaking hands seems inappropriate or uncomfortable OR a prelude to such physical contact.

Just think about it as a substitute for saying “I see you, hi there”

Another example from “friends” – Joey’s “How you doing?” usually combined with his head beckoning.

A quick note however: People who use this head nod for greetings do so because they prefer to keep their distance and avoid looking too eager. This way they can establish a formal level to the interaction and maintain their ‘cool’ facade.

Example: Think about a high status manager who meets one of his workers during work. The manager will beckon his head to say hello and recognize the person in front of him, but he will probably avoid shaking hands or making more empathetic gestures because he prefers to keep things on a formal level.

In fact, acting more lively than expected with a subordinate can lead to confusion and  suspiciousness from the subordinate side.

How and When to Nod

Here is a quick guide on how and when to nod.

Nod when you want to encourage and hear more. It’s extremely useful when you do want to know more about a specific point in their speech. It encourages the speaker to continue – they see that you like what you hear.

E.g. suppose you’re an interviewer and you think your interviewee holds back on a certain subject. Try to encourage him to delve deeper by nodding sympathetically while he speaks on that specific point – he might feel it’s safe enough to open up to you.

Nodding too much however loses its effect, as anything you do too repetitively, you just start being a phony or a boot-licker.

If you’re tired and bored you can always hold your head still or to look away, many times people just nod out of politeness, but the non-observant  speaker misinterpret this as agreement and encouraged to continue  – and the cycle continues.

Also remember that nodding doesn’t always means that someone agrees with you, it can signal understanding, but not necessarily that he thinks the same way as you.

Head Shake

Welcome to this third and final part in the series where we’ll examine the head shaking gesture.

So first of all, to state the obvious – when I talk about head shaking I talk about the rotation of the head from side to side to mean (almost) universally – NO.

And just like with the head nod, understanding the meaning of the head shake is simple but we can take a closer look to find out more than it looks on the surface. I also want to talk about other head gestures that are similar to head shaking but hold other significance.

Types of Head Shakes

Just like with the head nod, the speed and rhythm of the motion gives us hints about the manner of the listener:

  • A fast and rhythmic head shaking definitely says – “no, I disagree, this is not true.”
  • A slow and irregular turning of the head usually signals misunderstanding.
    Something didn’t get through quite right.
  • Slow and rhythmic head shaking can also signal disbelief. We cannot accept what we just heard.

So far so good, but sometimes the head shake is only barely visible. It can be quick or nonchalant, it doesn’t require a “complete” head shaking from side to side , a single turn of the head still can signal “no” – as if the listener got slapped by the words he just heard.

I mention this because most people avoid shaking their head like a cartoon character, and often culturally raised with the idea that it’s impolite or inappropriate.

It’s important to look for these negative signs,especially if you see them during your sales pitch, even if the listener doesn’t utter them verbally.

These hidden objections are not going away, and you better clear the air before proceeding and potentially losing the sale.

The Cut-Off Gesture

We talked about how the head can signal where our interests lie by pointing towards them.  This is especially evident in what experts call the cut-off gesture.

When we cut-off someone, we turn away from them, be it with our head, turning a cold shoulder or even giving them the back. Needless to say, the more we turn with our body the more severe is the negative reaction. Turning the head aside is probably the most gentle cut off, but it’s annoying nonetheless.

Now, before we jump to conclusions, let’s distinguish between a cut-off and simply looking to the side to contemplate:

When we converse on serious matters we often prefer to look to the distance, it helps us concentrate and think more clearly, it’s not because we dislike the person we speak with or his words – it’s simply a switch from conversing to processing.

When we don’t like what we hear however, we try to engage as little as possible and strive to end the talk.

We show other impatience gestures such as glancing to the sides, tapping or playing with objects and if we participate we do it  with minimal effort by throwing meaningless remarks.

When NO actually mean YES

Now, while nodding  for ‘yes’ and head shaking  for ‘no’ is almost a universal trait, there are a few cultural exceptions:

In some Balkan countries (Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania) the reverse is the true. Nodding upwards means a “no” , and shaking the head means a “yes”.

I didn’t find a sufficient reason to why is that so just yet, and it’s very intriguing because we are inborn knowing these gestures (even blind babies shake their heads to signal they done with the feeding).

Still, we need to respect our differences, and if you happen to visit such places remember this gesture and you’ll save yourself some awkward moments.

Head Bobble – Not really a “no”, not really a “yes”

One of the more confusing head gestures you’ll see is the head bobble in India.

There are actually several ways to make it, and each can have a different meaning. It can mean yes, no, maybe, a greeting and a thank you. All depends on the circumstances and the slightest changes in the exact motion.

Generally speaking, this gesture involves moving the head vertically from side to side. But I won’t pretend that I can elaborate on how each specific motion done and how to distinguish between a head bobble for  a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. I never been to India and I believe this is one of the things you got to learn by careful observation and training.

Here’s a quick video that I found that demonstrate the difference between a head bobble for yes or a no, not the most comprehensive guide, but helps nonetheless:

How to use Head Gestures in your Interactions

With these facts in mind you gain a new power over your interactions. Here is how you can use head gestures to understand others better and to be better understood.

When Interacting with others:

  1. Use the head nod to encourage and to build rapport with others, take note when someone else is trying to build rapport with you!
  2. Understand how attentive someone is by the way he moves his head.
  3. Listen to your instincts, if you believe someone disagrees with you, or just doesn’t feel involved, stop and clear the air, don’t waste your words on deaf ears.
  4. Remember, speed and direction are the main things you need to pay attention to.
  5. If you visit a foreign country, get to know and respect their culture and customs, if you can mimic them you connect with them better. Don’t worry if you’ll make mistakes, they’ll appreciate it even if you only try.


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