In the previous entry I talked about the two regional body language gestures I encountered in India and Uganda – the Indian head bobble and the Ugandan chin thrust. Noticing these gestures is one thing, but if you are foreign to them, as I am, discerning their meaning is a whole different matter. So here’s what I think.

The Indian head bobble (described in the previous blog) seems the more complex of the two. I described it as a graceful sliding of the head back-and-forth on the top of the neck. On YouTube I’m noticing when someone is trying to get Indians to demonstrate the gesture, it is truly an innate gesture – what I mean is that if you ask a person to think about it and then demonstrate it, it emerges in a kind of exaggerated tilting motion. However, if you just watch from the sidelines so that you observe it in context without their thinking about it, it seems like a much smoother rotation. And, of course, some do it more smoothly than others.

The meaning is very interesting. I would say that it loosely corresponds to “Yes, well, I hear you, but no, I’m not so sure…well, perhaps.” When I was actually seeing it in conversations in India, I picked up another subtle aspect: there is a note of disagreement or reservation in the gesture, like “Well, I’m not so sure what planet you’re from, but I can’t just tell you that, so whatever, I’m good with that…maybe.” Check out this clip from Outsourced to see the best demonstration I could find of both context and gesture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9k1fGypyEo.

I understand that the head bobble arises from a time in India where those in charge didn’t want to ever hear “No” as a response, so the gesture captures the perfect way of indecisively responding to a question or statement without offending anyone (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJ0SuD_ulVk).

The Ugandan chin thrust is much more straightforward. It is a subtle way of pointing at something – perhaps something on the table to pass, or something on the street, or something being selected from a group. It also is an innate gesture, meaning that no one thinks about it when they do it; it just communicates a specific meaning at the moment in the same way westerners would point with their finger or gesture with their hand. It happens very fast, and if it hadn’t been pointed out to me by another mzungu (white guy), I probably would have missed it. I’m guessing this gesture entered the language of Africans because their mothers really focused on the “Stop-that-it’s-rude-to-point” thing. Our western mothers certainly mentioned that fine point of etiquette to us repeatedly also, but then, being westerners, they almost immediately pointed at something, so we didn’t take them too seriously, or we’d all be pointing with our chins too. Maybe African moms just hammered that one home more successfully.