You say yes, I say no…

The headlines are saying that “Chimps shake their heads to mean ‘no’ just like humans” with the implication that it may “reflect a primitive precursor of the human ‘no’ headshake,” according to Christel Schneider of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Schneider spotted “preventive head shaking” from studying tapes of chimpanzees and bonobos in six European zoos.

I am shaking my head “no” to this wild assertion, and I am hopeful that Christel Schneider is, too, since the last line in the article indicates that she is aware that a shake of the head can mean “yes” in some cultures.

So why even talk about “a primitive precursor”? Precursor of what?

I had my first lesson about the arbitrary–not hard-wired–meaning of head shaking when I attended a classical Indian music concert as a college student in Syracuse, New York. During the performance, I was alarmed at seeing so many people in the audience shaking their heads in what I thought was a “no” message. They seemed to despair at the quality of the music. I felt sorry for the performers. After the performance, I learned that the head-shaking members of the audience were, in fact, deeply appreciative of the quality of the performance. Their side-to-side horizontal head movement meant, “yes, yes, wonderful, wah, wah.”

My second lesson is one that I probably share with thousands of other visitors to India, especially those lucky enough to be invited for a home meal. If, as an innocent American, you shake your head “no” when offered second helpings, you will find your hostess heaping yet more food on your plate. Again and again, because your hostess interprets your side-to-side head shaking as saying “yes, yes, more, please.”

The chimpanzees and bonobos living in European zoos would be at high risk for weight gain in India. Just like me.

Image: “Bonobo”, from flickr user tim_ellis, licensed with Creative Commons.

2 thoughts on “You say yes, I say no…

  1. Fion

    People establish their language by their culture, so different culture should have their own language. When we try to know more about other culture, it will be easier for us to learn their language.


  2. luisa

    I must agree with Fion. Every culture has their own way of communicating. The more we learn about them, the more we can relate to their way of communicating. I believe a chimp shaking it’s head no doesn’t mean they are communicating in a human way. Like stated in the article, some people shake their head side to side, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are saying NO. A good example of this is a toddler. At a certain age most toddlers say no, but in reality they mean yes. So since they are shaking their head no, would we deny them what they want? Especially since we really know they mean yes. I believe more studies should be conducted before reaching such a conclusion.


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