I was sat on a hard bench, riding third class on one of Sri Lanka’s charming pale blue locomotives as I enjoyed the ‘most beautiful train journey in the world’. The route took us through the stunning hill country and tea plantations that stretch from the holy city of Kandy up to Ella, with its endless trekking opportunities.
Throughout the six-hour journey, vendors passed out greasy paper parcels full of spicy Sri Lankan treats. I shared a few of these snacks with my travelling companions: an old Sri Lankan man, and a 30-something woman sat opposite. After a couple of hours I realised the man was staring at my canister of rip-off Pringles, and offered him some of those too.
In return, he would point out when the best views of the trip were coming up, miming as if he had a camera, and tapping on the open window whenever we approached a colonial tea plantation or a particularly breathtaking waterfall.
After a few hours, it was time for him to disembark the train. He waved at me, and gestured to explain that he was getting off the train. And then he smiled and wobbled his head.
To someone who has never been on the receiving end of a head wobble before, this gesture can be very surprising, and – at first – almost disconcerting. While performing the head waggle – a seemingly reflex reaction for Sri Lankans – the individual moves their head from side to side very rapidly. It has a lot in common with the ‘Indian head wobble’ and gestures elsewhere in south Asia, but is almost the direct opposite of the ‘yes’ head nod generally used in western nations.
In fact, it’s almost as difficult to describe as it is to master, so if you’re intrigued, watch some experts do it here.
What does the Sri Lankan head waggle mean?
In a nutshell, the head waggle means ‘yes’.
More broadly speaking, it can be a general gesture of agreement, or even friendship. Sri Lankans may acknowledge someone they know with a small head wobble, or use it to confirm they are listening. With such a variety of meanings, barely-perceptible differences in the head waggle – such as the emphasis being put on one side of the head, or a faster or slower pace – have come to mean different things.