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It’s the Chennai Way- the Head Shake

Wednesday, August 19, 2015
Deb Bailey

One thing that we have all noticed and been confused with is the head shake which is used in Chennai and surrounding area.  When asking a question, getting information, or explaining something, we will often get a reply accompanied  by a head shake, which can best described as a kind of a bobble. Does this mean yes? Does it mean no? Maybe? We are not quite sure!  Today I was exchanging money and they gave me the wrong currency and so I asked for the right currency and this was accompanied by a major head shake/bobble which I clearly understood as meaning “I am annoyed at you”.

Here is a link where some South Indians have fun with the meaning of the headshake

I can best describe the possible meanings of the headshake as used much the same way as Canadians say “hmmm…”  When we say “hmmm…” depending on the tone we use, we might mean  “maybe”, “that’s a bad idea”, I’m confused”, “think about that again” or “let me think about that” or “yeah I’m not really listening right now.”  If we add “m” in from of it we get ‘Mhmm” or” yes” and if we say that twice as in “mhmm” mhmm”  we mean “no.”  Consider someone from another culture/language trying to determine what we actually mean!!  So it is with the bobble head shake; you need to be able to understand the more subtle points of language and culture to weave your way through the meaning landscape.

Interestingly I have learned that one opinion on the development of the headshake is a result of colonization by the French and the British.  It seems that it was not a good idea to either agree or disagree with either of the colonialist powers.  If you agreed that you could do something and then it turned out that you could not actually deliver on the request, that could mean big trouble for you.   Likewise, if you did not want to do something the French or British asked, it could be somewhat dangerous to decline the request directly.  So therefore the wise Indian locals came up with the head shake which could be interpreted as either a  “yes”, “no” or “maybe” and thus keep one out of trouble with either French or British colonial powers.

Perhaps then it is only fitting to end my comments with a quote on Independence Day which is coming up in India on the 15 of August. On this day in 1947, India became an independent nation, free from colonialist rule.

"At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity."  Nehru, 1947