The Indian Head Bob


If there ever was a gesture that has people stumped it’s the Indian Head Bob. In researching for this blog post, I spent the better part of each day this past week reading blogs and watching YouTube videos that tried to demystify this odd wobble.

One man swore the roots of the Bob are historical; that Indians created the gesture to discomBOBulate our British oppressors during their two century occupation. The thinking being, if the British couldn’t get a straight answer from Indians, they’d scram-skedaddle out of the country, tearing their hair out in frustration. Who can handle ruling a people who are that flaky? Gandhi must not have been aware of this counter insurgency or he would have saved himself from endless fasts and the like.

Some videos even featured demonstrations and precise instructions; Right to left, forward to backward. Repeat five to ten times. Disturbing ticking sounds around the neck area notwithstanding, you’ll have mastered the Bob.

But what does it mean? Most experts agree that the Bob is the Sub-continent’s symbol for acquiescence. As a general rule it means YES. At the very worst, MAYBE. I don’t know about you, but the range between YES and MAYBE involves quantum physics. Shouldn’t you know what you are agreeing to?

At the end of nearly eight hours of research, the take away was simply this: Head Bob. Who the hell knows?

You’d think someone from the Indian sub-continent would know what it means. I did spend my formative years in India, in a region that’s notoriously famous for the head bob. (Apparently the further North you travel, fewer people indulge in the Bob). While I lived in Madras (now Chennai), I head wobbled at will. It’s a default setting among South Indians; hardwired into our collective DNA. In the company of other head wobbling enthusiasts, we didn’t have to think hard about what we meant when we Bobbed in response to situations and questions (mundane and serious). Most of the time the Bob was the sort of non-committal riposte that satisfied.

But I’ve lived away from India long enough that I don’t Bob. But within minutes of landing on Indian soil, my head moves on its own volition. It’s that infectious.

So fair warning; if your travels take you to the old sub-con, you too will Bob.


But in the spirit of sharing, here’s how you can make sense of this gesture.

  1. Speed

A fast and furious Bob doesn’t mean the person understands what you are saying. It’s very likely he’s confused.

  1. Hand gestures

Watch for these. They often accompany the Bob. A thumb up is good news. A hand at the nape means you are being conned. Hands on hips is an enthusiastic affirmative response. Knuckle cracking means you should hail a cab and leave. NOW! Foot shifting isn’t good either.

  1. Eyes/lips and other olfactory senses

Eyes are the window. This is straight forward. Eyebrows, eyes and lips signal universal messages. Some exceptions: Prolonged eye contact is considered offensive. Smiles can sometimes convey embarrassment. A smile accompanying a Bob means NO.

  1. Words

The Bob with words. This is the best possible outcome.

The Bob without words. Refer to points 1-3.

Happy travels.




3 thoughts on “The Indian Head Bob

  1. Have to live in India to connect Sindhu ,,me too unaware of most signs now ,,,,what to do,,its still namma chennai ,,,,


  2. Brilliant and hilarious! Could it be something in the air down south in India? I lived in Chennai for close to three decades. Never ‘wobbled.’ It has got to be a birth right thing! Love this Blog!


  3. Brilliant and Hilarious. Lived in Chennai for close on three decades. Never bobbed when I lived there or when I went back for visits. I think one has to be born in India to reconnect to the BOB on returning after living abroad for a long time.


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