Building Your Cross Cultural Competence by Decoding the Indian Nod

Volume 16 · Issue 1

Decoding the Indian Nod!

Cross Cultural Competence with High- and Low-Context Cultures

Learn to decode the ‘Indian Nod’ in this issue of our eNews and get tips for building your cross cultural communications blog posts.

In This Issue

Cross Cultural Misunderstandings

We all know the benefits of having colleagues exhibit cross cultural competence in work situations. And, you probably also realize that within your team’s cross cultural communication, understanding each other and getting on the same page to accomplish business goals can be quite tricky. Even when you have culturally diverse teams comprised of highly qualified, productive people, simple miscommunications can be frustrating and disruptive to the workflow. Luckily, these misunderstandings can be minimized if we clarify the kinds of situations that lead to miscommunication and conflict.

Have you ever misread a physical gesture made by one of your colleagues?

In reading nonverbal cues you may have concluded that someone was responding yes to your idea – only to later realize that they did not agree at all and, in fact, thought it was a waste of time! With 55% of communication being nonverbal , a basic misunderstanding like this example can cause unnecessary conflict and decrease your organization’s effectiveness. Unfortunately, this is all too common. Take for example, the Indian Nod. What exactly does that gesture mean? Is that person agreeing with you? Are they saying ‘yes’? Does that mean that person is on board with your project?

Decoding the Indian Nod

The Indian Nod, or ‘Indian Head Bobble,’ is a gesture used in every day communication that varies speed and direction in order to convey specific meanings. You may observe that during client meetings or strategy sessions a colleague from India will nod his or her head consistently throughout the conversation – even in response to directly conflicting points! This can be confusing or even frustrating to the untrained eye, but take a closer look before you jump to a conclusion.

The Indian Nod can range from slow and soft to rapid and vigorous, even from front to back, and side to side. With the head bobble, Indians can communicate things like affirmation, understanding, acknowledgement, and friendship. A nod that you assume means “Yes I will finish that today” could actually mean “Okay, I hear what you’re saying.”

If the nuances of this gesture are unfamiliar to you, don’t worry! The Indian Nod has been baffling India’s tourists for years. Yet as business professionals in an increasingly globalized world, we don’t have the luxury of allowing potential misunderstandings to fester, possibly escalating into missed deadlines. To succeed, we need to learn more about the variety of communication styles that impact our workplace.

High-Context vs. Low-Context Cultures

In “A Manager’s Guide to Virtual Teams,” Yael Zofi explains the subtle ways that cross cultural communication can derail projects. Research indicates that different cultures utilize varying forms of contextual information to create meaning while interacting.

Context refers to the type of information that you and your colleagues exchange and interpret to varying degrees. India is what anthropologist Edward T. Hall coined a ‘high-context culture‘ as opposed to a ‘low-context culture‘ such as the United States, Switzerland or Germany. Depending on which culture you are from your understanding will be based on how much emphasis you place on contextual cues.

High-context cultures are those in which communication is predominantly indirect. Tone, facial expressions, and interpersonal relationships are more important than words alone. Your Middle Eastern, South American, and South East Asian colleagues are more inclined to use non-verbal communication because they anticipate that those around them will read between the lines. Therefore, the Indian Nod reflects an indirect communication style that says things without verbally speaking them.

Conversely, in low-context cultures, communication is direct, explicit, and task oriented. Your North American and Western European colleagues rely on verbal speech to send and interpret messages rather than gestures, expressions and positions.

So what does this mean for your virtual team?

It is important to keep in mind and decode who within your team embodies high and low contextual styles and then adjust your leadership style accordingly.
As Yael Zofi states, “One rule above all guides virtual team behavior…assume positive intent of your teammates. Simply, give others the benefit of the doubt. ”

Now Let’s Try It Out!

Now, with an understanding of high-context and low-context cultures you see how important it is to be aware of these differences in cross cultural communication. The next time you see an Indian colleague nodding his or her head during a meeting, ask specific questions about the topic before making assumptions that could hurt the effectiveness of your million dollar idea.

Follow these guidelines to make sure you never leave an Indian Nod misunderstood again:

1. First consider what you know about the person you’re communicating with: Where are they from?
What is their personality like? How do they usually communicate?
2. Then reiterate what you think is being communicated in order to confirm or correct your interpretation: Is your perception accurate or did they mean something else?
Are you getting the whole story?
3. Finally, collaborate to clarify ‘next action’ items: Now that you’ve reached common ground, what do each of you agree to do next?
When will your commitments be done by?

Making a genuine effort to learn more about the communication tactics of global colleagues will greatly increase your cross cultural competence. This will also enable you to develop shared understandings and productive work relationships that will take your culturally diverse teams to the next level.

For guided information on how to improve your virtual teams, connect with Yael to discuss which of her advising services and management consulting solutions will best suit your needs.

– Jazmin Fuller

Jazmin Fuller is currently pursuing her Masters in Organizational Psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University.

About AIM Strategies

AIM Strategies® Applied Innovative Management® is a results-driven Human Capital Consulting firm led by CEO Yael Zofi, our expertise is in: Virtual Team Facilitation, Global Leadership Development, and Cross Cultural Communications.To request information about AIM’s experiential learning methods (5D’s™ Proprietary Training Methodology and ACT™ Coaching Process), please email In upcoming issues, we will update you on tips and techniques related to raising your innovative management IQ. We are confident that our virtual teams solutions solve your business problems. Please forward this eNews to your colleagues and visit and to learn how our services unlock the people potential of your organization!

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