The Sri Lankan head “waggle”

We of the West are very linear minded, aren’t we? Here is an example. Provided you are not one of my Sri Lankan readers, nod your head up and down as if you are agreeing with someone. Note the motion of your chin as you do so. Your chin goes up and down in a vertical plane. Now, shake your head, side to side, to indicate disagreement. Now your chin is moving left to right on a horizontal plane. Except for the questioning gesture of cocking our head to one side, nodding in a vertical plane and shaking in a horizontal plane exhausts our range of head gestures.

Sri Lankans are not so limited. They have additional head gestures, chief being the head “waggle.” To get a sense of the head waggle, focus again on your chin. First loosen up your neck muscles. Now pretend your chin is a pocket watch swinging, pendulum-like, on the end of a chain. Your chin should move in an arc. It takes practice and requires a limber neck to make it look natural. The gesture is reminiscent of the motion of the head of a bobble-headed doll.

I have not yet figured out all the meanings of the head waggle gesture, but there are several. Usually, it means agreement, or “yes.” This can be very confusing to the American newcomer because we are used to interpreting any side-to-side gesture as “no.”  When we first arrived in Colombo, I proposed a fare to a tuk-tuk driver and he waggled. At the time, I was not sure whether this was “yes” or “no,” so I nodded vigorously up-and-down motions and asked “yes?,” then made vigorous side-to-side motions and asked “no?” His answer turned out to be “yes,” which, of course, meant that I was overpaying him. (Additionally, it is a perverse fact that seems almost to have been designed to promote misunderstandings between Sinhalese and Americans, that “Yes” in Sinhalese is “Oh,” which sounds very  close to “No.” Trying to schedule a pickup by a Sinhalese tuk-tuk driver over the phone (they all have cell phones) can come to resemble the famous Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first?” comedy routine. )

But variations on the the waggle gesture have other meanings. I’ve detected an interrogative version: “Do you agree?” And I will never forget the day that PP needed to communicate to me that we were in the presence of a potentially long  winded speaker and we needed to get back home where we were already late for lunch. We were seated and as I listened to the speaker, I felt a light touch on my knee. I looked over at PP and he had a imploring look in his eyes and he gave me a nearly invisible, microscopic head waggle. The meaning could not have been clearer: “Please! Don’t let her get started or we will never get home!”

As another variation in meaning, let me add a story about my students during the first semester. As the instructor in a fourth year class in Classical Mechanics, I was told I had considerable leeway as to when to schedule the final exam, but that it would be wise to consult with the students about their schedules. So I sent out an email soliciting suggestions about the optimum date for the final exam.

A few days later, all four of my female students appeared at my office door. These young women seemed to work together and travel as a group. Young Sri Lankan women are always completely covered, at least from their necks to their ankles. The uniformity of their clothing and their closeness as they faced me, two in front, two in back, reminded me of a small choir. One of the women was Muslim, as evidenced by her head scarf, and she was the group spokesperson. She proposed a date that, in fact, was identical to what I already had in mind. To make sure that I understood the proposal, I repeated the date back to them and asked if that was correct. With a unison that would have made a synchronized swimming team proud, they each gave a kind of a half-waggle, their chins scribing a J through the air, which I think can best be translated into English as “Yep!” I asked them if they were aware that they waggled in unison and they dissolved into giggles and skittered off.

Kris and I have adopted the head waggle in private. However, we do not use it correctly. Between us, it means “I don’t know” and we usually use it in the context of “Here is yet another Oriental mystery I can not begin to understand!”




  1. Varuni said,

    February 6, 2009 at 8:53 am


    Excellent judgment. Last week, during tea, I was going to bring up this “waggle gesture” (until I saw the blog, I did’nt have a name for the gesture) and I forgot it. You are not the first to observe this, but surely you are the first to name it.

    During my first semester in grad school in USA, my solid state physics professor got confused with my waggle gesture, then my students, supervisor……Finally I some how managed to drop that. However, again I have started using the waggle gesture, course everyone around is using it.

    Believe me, waggle gesture can mean 100 things. May be sri lankan readers will start posting the different meanings. To me it means “ partial agreement”


  2. Anna said,

    February 20, 2009 at 11:02 am

    Wow, that’s it! The waggle means, “maybe.”

  3. ea25id said,

    February 24, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    I think they have a special joint in their necks. I couldn’t help but giggle every time they did it.

  4. February 24, 2010 at 6:29 pm

    […] It takes some getting used to and frustrated us at times but overall it made us giggle.  Read this blog about it that we found.  Also this little vid kinda explains it […]

  5. October 14, 2017 at 6:08 pm

    […] your head left to right in Sri Lanka, and you are in agreement. This is often called “the waggle.” In the West, the same gesture means you’re […]

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