Friday, January 13, 2012

[January 13th, Culture of Bulgaria] The Head Shake vs. The Head Nod

I’ve been thinking about a good topic for my cultural post, but I decided against tackling yet another religious holiday, even though January is one of the busiest months for name days. I’m picking body language, because it’s an interesting topic on its own and Bulgaria seems to be one of the few countries [I’m including Greece as well], where the head nod is inverted in meaning with the head shake. 

Who ordered the scizophrenic head shakes?
 Or so the rumor goes, but I’d like to talk about the myth’s basics.  

As you know, internationally, the ‘head nod’ signifies agreement, whereas the ‘head shake’ stands for the opposite. You see it in movies, you see it on the TV and if you’re a traveler, you have confirmed this for yourself. Now, in Bulgaria, it’s said that shaking your head actually means that you are saying yes, while nodding your head means that you are disagreeing with a statement or answering in the negative. I’m not sure where this rumor started, because where I live in Varna, I have yet to spot a person shake their head for a ‘yes’ and nod for a ‘no.’

I had to google to confirm that this rumor is alive and well. Tourists that have visited Bulgaria have experienced this conundrum, which further perplexes me. In my community and social environment [including Bulgarian television] there are no examples to confirm this, although there are accounts of this being a thing. The only gesture to come close to this idea is what I call the ‘reverse nod’.

The ‘reverse nod’ is a means to communicate disagreement. Basically, you tilt your head back so the chin lifts, rather than dips as is the situation with a normal nod. In my family, we like to add a very clear ‘tsk’ noise to emphasize just how much we’re not on board with an idea or as is the case with my mother, how much something is SO not happening. Naturally, when you repeat this movement in a quick succession, it seems as though you’re nodding, but you’re not. I myself have been perplexed by the movement, especially when the person in front of me does not provide the much needed ‘tsk’ noise.

I haven’t seen the head-shake-yes in action and considering that I’m born, raised and located in Bulgaria, it’s saying something about the validity of this myth. However, I can’t dismiss the veracity of this myth based solely on my own personal experience as I believe two factors to be heavily present. Americanization and body language dialect.

Bulgaria’s on the fast track, when it comes to adopting Western values and mannerisms that have no root in our own culture. In the process, each new generation sheds something inherent from Bulgarian culture, which is no longer functional. This is the reason why Bulgarian kids are more adept at expressing themselves better in English than in Bulgarian. The same can be said about body language as I personally have grown up with American TV and have picked up all my visual cues from sitcoms. Bad stares, grumpy stances and the rolling of the eyes, all have come from US shows and to some degree Latin American soap operas [our channels had a lot of those]. It’s not unlikely for the new generations to pick up and implement something as fundamental as the head shake and nod. Perhaps ten to twenty years ago, more people said yes with a head shake and no with a head nod, but now with the internationalization of culture this practice is slowly being forgotten.

The second factor I mentioned deals with the dialect of body language. Bulgaria might be of a diminutive size, but each province has its own dialect. It might be slight changes to how one letter is pronounced. It might be connected with how a certain word is used and it might be a very jarring sentence construction, but each province has its differences as is normal. That is why I don’t think it out of the question to assume that some provinces would have kept on the inverted head shake/nod, while others like mine have discarded it. My only fault here is that I have not travelled extensively within my own country to be able to confirm this.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is to take all the information you read in travel guides with a bit of salt. If you do come to Bulgaria and feel that you’re unsure how to proceed in regards to the head shake vs. the head nod, it’s best to rely on the verbal ‘da’ for yes and ‘ne’ for no.