the barely perceptible head nod

It’s natural for humans to seek out each other’s eyes.  Wherever we are, whatever we do, catching someone else’s eyes, especially a stranger, is a form of connection, whether for split-second evaluation, interest, or communication.  Seeking other’s eyes is one of those things which separates us from other living creatures.

Walking the streets of large cities like NYC or BKK, it becomes practice to avoid eye contact, especially from those who you know will want something from you.  In our personal device-dependent world, it’s all the more easier to be in public and steer clear of eye contact.

Every once in a while though, when we do make a split-second connection, there is a reaction, even if impulsively.  If it’s a positive connection we might smile.  For guys, when making a positive connection it’s not uncommon for a slight head nod to take place.  The head nod is a form of saying “hey” or “what’s up.”  It’s a type of cool recognition without the formality of needing to say anything.  But it’s a clear positive connection.

The head nod usually, but not always, happens between guys of the same ilk.  It’s an obvious yet subtle gesture used when verbal communication would seem a little much.

As in all communication, the nod needs to be initiated.  A head nod isn’t successful unless it’s received a reciprocal nod.  Since living in China and being the oddball out, I initiate better than 90% of head nod exchanges (that I’m involved in).  Better than 90% of those nods elicit a return nod.  I’d be happy with that success ratio, but here I nod more often than normal, perhaps because I get lots of stares just for being a goofy foreigner.

Most of the time I stay in my zone and don’t stare back.  When I do, most unabashedly keep staring.  Once in a while, to the guy, I’ll simply give the faint head nod, as if to say ‘what up dude.’  If they are not directly off the bus from the farm, they’ll return the nod.

Last evening I was sitting at a street-side table cafe having a drink and playing with my iPad.  Two young guys drove up in a smooth sports car, hopped out singing the song that was playing on their overly loud sound systems and strolled into the cafe.  As the driver passed my table, I could tell he was seriously checking me out (not gayly).  I looked up and gave him the slight nod.  He returned the nod, then looked away.  We nonverbally greeted each other and I disarmed him at the same time.

This morning in the park as I was power-walking loops, I passed two Tai Chi instructors walking from the opposite direction. (I could tell they were instructors from what they were wearing).  As we approached each other, through soft vision I could see their eyes boring into me.  I made eye contact with the one closest as I passed and gave the head nod. He quickly reciprocated.  I had at least three other head nod exchanges in the park today.

When I arrive to my building on my bicycle, the guards at the garage door routinely exchange the head nod with me.  Occasionally one will want to wave.  If my hands are full or I’m maneuvering around the security barrier, the head nod does the trick, for both of us.

The head nod appears to be a male form of communication.  Instinctively, I would never think of head nodding a woman.  Nor have I ever received a head nod from one.  Females are better at the indistinct smile.  Head nodding is something guys do.

If there are any female readers of this post who have an opinion, it would be lovely to hear from you.  For the male readers, we know the head nod is practical.  Not everyone gets the the nod and there are times when the head nod receiver may be confused by the motion.  It could even be ignored.  But don’t be deterred.  Use of the nod is a friendly, disarming act that is better off liberally spread around.

The next time someone catches your eyes (or you theirs), treat them to a barely perceptible head nod.

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