Yes, No, and Everything in Between

When you think about body language and the head, the two gestures that probably come to mind are head nods and head shakes. While nodding is the classic way of agreeing with a friend and shaking your head is usually the way to say “No way,” there are other messages contained in these movements.

Shake It Up

Shaking your head from side to side is usually a way to tell someone that you're in disagreement with his point of view, whether you're telling a child that he can't eat hot fudge out of the can for dinner or you're telling your boss that you won't take on more work for the same pay. The headshake sends a clear message: “No.”

However, the headshake has another layer to it. Let's say you're on your way into a funeral home. Mourners are gathered, speaking in hushed tones … what else do you notice? That's right, heads are shaking. In this instance, some people might be shaking their heads in disbelief, while others use the gesture to express their sorrow, but this is still usually a way of saying, “I can't believe this has happened.” (Now, this is an extreme example. You might also see a neighbor shaking his head as he surveys the holes his dog has dug in the yard. This is simply his way of saying, “I can't believe that animal is so destructive.”)

You might see people shake their heads during an argument as well. This is a way of expressing displeasure and disagreement with the other person's point of view.

Hair twirling can be either flirtatious or self-soothing.

It's really interesting when someone shakes his head no while he's saying yes — or when he saysno while nodding his head yes. That's a sure sign that he is at the very least conflicted in his point of view and very likely being untruthful with his spoken message.


Nodding is an easy way to say that you agree with something. However, nods can also indicate that someone is listening to what you're saying — a way of telling you “Yes, yes, I see your point, please go on.”

Someone who's very excited may also nod a lot. Picture your best friend seated at a concert for her favorite band. As she's singing along, she's also nodding that head up and down. She looks like she's simply catching her groove (which she is), but she's also expressing her delight. Of course, very quick nodding is an even clearer indication of excitement. If you offered your roommate a free dinner at his favorite burger place, he might respond with a set of eager nods.

Nodding can also be a gesture of dominance, a way of saying, “I'm in charge here.” Imagine that you've been pulled over for speeding, and as you try to argue your way out of the ticket (you're very sure you were actually driving too slowly), the officer interrupts you and lists all of the offenses he's checking off on your slip. As he ticks off each point, he nods. He's emphasizing his point and telling you that there's no use trying to change his mind. Take the ticket and take your chances with the judge instead.

In the extreme, nodding can express anger. The cop in the previous example wasn't truly enraged; he was simply asserting his power. When you're embroiled in a nasty argument with someone, it's not unusual for both heads to start moving up and down in time with the yelling. This is just a way of using your head to emphasize your point and make yourself heard (albeit very loudly).

As you've read here, the head can send some pretty powerful messages — both positive and negative. Knowing how to decode above-the-shoulders communication can lead you to some interesting conclusions. Keep your eyes trained on your friends' noggins and you'll be way a-head of the body language game.

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