When you say a character shook their head, does that mean they nodded, as in "yes", or they shook it sideways, signifying the answer is "no?"

  • 4
    What I hate is when a character is quoted as saying "uh-huh" without making it clear that it's "uh-HUH" or "UH-huh" which have opposite meanings. There; that's an off-topic comment, so shoot me.
    – Jennifer
    Mar 7, 2018 at 6:00
  • 2
    Bewqare of cultural differences in meaning if you're writing for an international audience
    – Chris H
    Mar 7, 2018 at 10:14
  • You kind of answer the question yourself in the way you use shake and nod, no?
    – JPhi1618
    Mar 7, 2018 at 16:26
  • 1
    As a side note, in some very particular areas of the world a nod might not mean yes, see Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nod_(gesture)#To_indicate_refusal You might also find interesting the articles about the head shake (exceptionally used for affirmation) and the Indian head bobble (used to assent).
    – ANeves
    Mar 7, 2018 at 17:00
  • @JPhi1618 You can shake your head up and down
    – mcalex
    Mar 7, 2018 at 17:12

4 Answers 4


From personal experience (central Europe) I would say that shaking your head is normally a "No" and nodding your head is normally a "Yes". But looking through English.SE: When moving one's head to answer a question does “nod” mean yes and “shake” mean no?:

Head movements vary in their meaning depending on the culture in question. In general, in countries where English is the native language, a "nod" (not a "node") is an up and down movement of the head meaning "yes." A head shake is a side to side movement meaning "no." At least for most English speakers in Britain and America, a nod never means no, and a shake never means yes. This is somewhat oversimplified and variations exist, but for the most part, the basic pattern is as I have stated it.

As a writer you should make sure that there are other clues for the reader to show what the intention is. For example you could add that the character is "shaking their head in disagreement" or "nodding enthusiastically".

  • 4
    Re: "As a writer you should make sure that there are other clues for the reader to show what the intention is": I think this depends on the intended audience. Plenty of anglophone books assume their readers know at least a little bit about anglophone culture, and I don't think there's any problem with that.
    – ruakh
    Mar 6, 2018 at 23:50
  • 2
    Be aware that some cultures have a second type of head shake, tilting the head left/right rather than turning it (also known as a "bobble"), which usually indicates agreement. (Of course, some south-eastern European countries, e.g. Bulgaria / Albania, have the meanings of a Nod and a Shake reversed! Potential plot-point?) Mar 7, 2018 at 9:13
  • @Chronocidal - indeed. That difference caused several "hilarious" incidents the first time I went to Bulgaria :) Mar 7, 2018 at 17:51

As stated, a "shake" of the head is the side to side movement, a nod is up and down, and a bob of the head is down then up.

Generally speaking a nod means yes and a shake means no.

But then it gets complicated. Because a shake doesn't always indicate a negative emotion or a negative reaction. A small shake of the head with a small smile can indicate humour, or self depreciation, or a reaction to a bad joke. Fast movement side to side can be used to "refresh" someone, wake them up. It can mean disagreement with the speaker, or it can be used in support of a statement made by the speaker. It can indicate denial, rejection, refutation, disdain, anger, support and myriad other emotions and actions.

With a shake of the head, body language, context and environment matter before we even begin to get into cultural/geographic variances. Especially in places like Australia where phrases like "Yeah, nah" and "Yeah, nah, yeah" are proudly uttered and confuse non-Australians endlessly. Where depending on the position in the sentence, expletives can either be negative and abusive, or a term of endearment.

  • 3
    'That's wicked evil' is a compliment.
    – SFWriter
    Mar 6, 2018 at 22:56
  • As is "That's wicked good". "Yeah, nah" is often positive (as in agreeing), whereas "Yeah, nah, yeah" is often negative (as in disagreeing). But not always.
    – user18397
    Mar 7, 2018 at 0:29

For me it works like this.

A nod is primarily a signal of positive empathy. A shake is primarily a signal of negative empathy.

If someone says something good and you want to confirm that, you nod. If someone says something good and you want to deny that that, you shake your head.

If someone says something bad/horrible and you want to confirm that you shake your head. If someone says something bad/horrible and you want to deny that, you distance your self by not giving any feedback.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE mncl! Good answer. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun!
    – Secespitus
    Mar 7, 2018 at 10:43
  • That of course depends upon where you are in the world. In many cultures you indicate approval or agreement by moving the head from side to side, and a nod means no.
    – Chenmunka
    Mar 7, 2018 at 11:23

Also a popular acronym: Urban Dictionary: smh

Acronym for 'shake my head' or 'shaking my head.' Usually used when someone finds something so stupid, no words can do it justice. Sometimes it's modified to 'smfh' or 'smmfh' by those that prefer profanity in their internet acronyms. trick1: i got a headache...i hit myself in the head with my knee while trying to do situps.

trick2: smh

Basically shaking ones head at a loss for words or in utter disbelief. Hardly likely to mean yes.

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