Bobbing and weaving…

Thiruvannaamalai, Tamil Nadu

While I was walking on a 14km hike around a mountain (a post on that later), I realized how much I was getting used to India’s traffic. I don’t jump a million miles in the air anymore, when a vehicle brushes me as it goes by, or a motorcycle speeds by behind me while a bus does the same in front of me. I can even cross the street now without soiling myself or running like a crazy man.

There are very few controlled intersections here, and the ones that do have lights are ignored unless there are traffic cops directing the traffic (in Kathmandu, the traffic police have machine guns!) so crossing the street becomes an art form. You start by inching your way into traffic and slowly make your way across, stopping in between streams of vehicles until you emerge on the other side, like this.

I think I know why this type of crossing works here and not in North America. First off, the traffic here is much slower, so the reaction time for drivers to stop or avoid is better. Secondly, I would estimate that over 90% of the traffic here is either autorickshaws or motorcycles (there are a boatload of motorcycles here)


and they are far more maneuverable then the huge Honda Civics or Tata Nanos.

I didn’t perfect this method myself until Chennai. Up to then, I just threw my arms into the air waved them back and forth and screamed “Dear God, I’ll be a very good boy if you get me out of this” while a very nice man with a very big truck honked his horn and gave me a head bob.

Which brings up another observation about India, the mysterious Indian head bob. This has got to be the most confusing aspect of communication in the world. The meaning of the head bob depends on many circumstances and situations during it’s use.

The head bob is a “side-to-side tilting of the head in arcs along the coronal plane”. It is often performed by the listener in agreement with what is being said by the speaker, such that the speaker perceives there is ‘no problem’ with the message currently being conveyed, unless the speaker is asking a question or the listener doesn’t agree with the speaker but will comply nonetheless, or sometimes it just means maybe.

It’s a little confusing…

Maybe this is a better explanation.

I saw this a little in Nepal and Delhi, a little more in Bangalore and Chennai, but in Puducherry and rural Tamil Nadu, everybody does it. I think I saw a cow give me one yesterday while it watched me cross the street in front of it.


I’m pretty sure that when Southern Indian children are born, they come out of the womb, the doctor smacks them on the rear end, and the child gives a head bob.

My personal experience with the head bob happened at this great restaurant in Puducherry named Surguru that serves awesome thali, dosas and curries (which incidentally comes from the Tamil word kari which means sauce). The manager of Surguru is a gruff gentleman who never smiles and paces around the restaurant making sure things are operating in a reasonable fashion while looking like he is planning the invasion of a neighbouring country.


When he takes my order, he usually offers up a suggestion on what I should have. He rarely uses more than one word at a time while doing it though. He points to an item on the menu and just says “this”. I usually agree, and then he brings me the dish, points to it and just says “taste”.

So far, he hasn’t steered me wrong (I’ve been there a number of times because the food is really good), so I rarely deviate from his suggestions, but one time I did…


“No, I think I’ll have the Masala Dosa with some Naan and whatever this one is.”

Then he gave me the head bob.


In this instance I think it meant “Ok”, but it could have easily meant “maybe” or “I guess that could work” or “you stupid, stupid Canadian, dosa and naan never go with whatever that is. You should just stick to cheese”.

It turned out fine, like every meal there has so far, but I’ll always wonder what that head bob meant. Oh well, I’ll just think about it while I wander into traffic. Maybe the next guy who tries to sell me a chess set will get a head bob from me. It would probably scare him so much that he would leave me alone for good.


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2 thoughts on “Bobbing and weaving…

  1. tokyomike55 says:

    OK, seriously, I gotta stop reading these. In addition to being really funny, it’s making me want to get right back and visit Tamil Nadu. Cool point about Curry being from Tamil. I’ll be sure to pull that ace from my sleeve next time I’m out for Indian with my co workers.

    As for the head bob, I had the same issues. I’d ask one of the project guys if something was technically possible and I’d get the head bob and an explanation…that still didn’t clarify if it was possible. So I had to pull rank and ask for a yes or a no. It was a yes. And a head bob.

    Anyway, another great post. Very well written. And for head bobs, check out how Canadians do it by Russel Peters:

    • JBJ says:

      Ha ha! I was recently at a local Indo-Asian grocery store and observed a woman doing the head-bob while telling the clerk “Ahcha, Ahcha”. It made me really miss India.

      Russel Peters is one of the funniest people on the planet.

      Thanks for the kind words and the link.

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