Friday, May 25, 2012

The Unspoken Language

Ask a foreigner to imitate an Indian and he immediately does two things - flattens the way he speaks English ( much like how we might use the Chapati belan) and begins to move his head in an imitation of those clay-dolls  that moves its head and body in two directions, when set into motion!

My firang friends often ask me questions by exaggeratedly shaking their head. However, at those times, the joke is on them. For I don't realise that it is mimicry in action. We are so used to people talking with their eyes, face, neck and hands that when someone does it with mimicked exaggeration, you consider it par for the course and don't realise that it is a deliberate attempt. Often after failed attempts to elicit laughter, they ask me outright if they were shaking their head right, to either denote approval or denial. And there ensues a quick course in The Unspoken Language of the Indians.

It is funny how different parts of India have their own gestures for yes or no. But I have rarely had to explain myself to another Indian when I reply with only a nod and no syllables accompanying it. Need I repeat that that is never the case with my international set of friends. Much like an animal in a zoo that knows that something they did is like a magic trick that the crowd around your cage is waiting for you to repeat, I put on my best show face and exaggerate my already exaggerated reaction - a smile and a series of quick oscillations of the chin forward and backward - I want/I agree/yes, that's exactly what I mean. ( What the reaction means need to be understood according to context!! Go figure!)

So since observing and researching such behaviour is a favourite passtime of mine, I began consciously noticing how people talk the Unspoken Language. I like noticing people who are far far away from me, those who are visible but not within the audible range. So the conversations are left to my imagination and the game is to gauge the reaction from their gestures. Here are a few of the common and my favourites -

  • Smack the lip, shut the eyes tight and make the smacckkkkkk sound to express how  delicious you found something ( you will be surprised at how many people actually do that without even realising the gesture in their hurry to express their pleasure over a dish!) 
  • Yes - Mentioned earlier, but nods that oscillate your chin forward and backward - the quicker the movement, the more emphatic is the approval. Oscillate sidewards and thats a big No! 
  • However, if someone is explaining a kind of tough premise and you aren't following it, the same movement needs to be slowed down along with the furrowing of the eyebrows to denote Perplexed Contemplation
  • If the hands are moving like windmills, then be assured the explanation is on a mega-scale! Beware, the person explaining it might be doing it just to hide they have little content but lots of drama to offer. 
  • Indians love using the arm to the chin to show "I am giving the bullshit you are spouting some 'serious contemplation' even if I might look like an actor using cliched expressions"
  • The exaggerated wink with the accompanying idiotic laugh is many people's idea of making you in cahoots with some harebrained scheme or prank that is either being hatched or being played out! 
  • Eyes in slits, nose flared and lips pinched is "Wait till I get you for this!" usually when your better half is having a field day at your expense in front of your friends but anything said at the moment will just make you look churlish!
  • And the most Indian of it all, and this one is rather exaggerated - the right fist to the head that's slightly thrown back with eyes closed and a look of distress on the face accompanied often by a lethargic oscillation of the head sideways - I am feeling so sorry for myself, I am having a Meena Kumari moment/ the sweet drama of the situation needs to be acted out!
This list is inexhaustible. And it might be a fun game to invite more entries and adjudge among ourselves which of the gestures of the Unspoken Language Lexicon takes the cake!! 

I unfortunately happen to be a highly animated character - much like the navarasas taught in Bharatanatyam, every conversation with me is punctuated by my animated facial inputs to words. But I just realised, as you are reading this post, perhaps you tried one or two of the gestures I mentioned just to check whether that's how you'd express it yourself, didn't you??

Time for some honesty! Come on!! ( Shakes head in quick series of oscillatory forward-backwards - sign of encouragement!)

:) :) :) 

(Image Courtesy: 123RF)


  1. I like this post,, ya different ppl have different reactions..:)

    1. Thanks Ruchi...:) we are strange in different ways..:D

  2. hahaha! I so get this often with RD..he tells me I animate when I talk...but i think I do..I am 'so' Indian!

    1. Indeed!! Verrrry Verrrry Indian of us...shakes head and nods in chorus...:D