December 3, 2008

The Bulgarian 'No' Nod
Nova Zagora, Bulgaria

Tatiana and I are really having a terribly brutal time adapting to Bulgaria's peculiar take on nodding. You see, here in this country, nodding your head means 'no', and shaking your head means 'yes'.

It's a bloody loony land—like we're perpetually stuck in some kinda bad joke.

So basic a form of our elementary non-verbal (body) language, switching gears has turned out to be horrendously difficult task to accomplish. When someone tells a story or I'm listening to another speak, I tend to show my interest and give feedback by making small nodding motions. It's nearly involuntary, I scarcely think about it. But here in Bulgaria, in bizarre backwards land, this would be like watching your conversational partner oddly shaking his head from side to side, as one might do when hearing something in disbelief.

Even worst is when we're speaking to folks who've no little or zero command of any language other than Bulgarian or Russian. The simplest of conversations involving confirmation of any kind (like asking if this bus goes to a location that I've written on a piece of paper) brings with it confusion. We've got to specifically confirm verbally in Bulgarian, sometimes accidently mixing a spoken 'yes' with a Bulgarian 'no' nod.

Wikipedia's thoughts on this mess:

There are varying theories as to why nodding is so frequently used to mean 'yes'. One simple theory is that it is a form of bowing, indicating that one is prepared to accept what another person is saying or requesting. It has also been stated that babies, when hungry, search for their mother's milk by moving their heads vertically, but decline milk by turning their head from side to side. This has led some to speculate that nodding for 'yes' is at least partially innate.

In some countries (Bulgaria and Sri Lanka) nodding actually has the opposite meaning: 'no'. Rumor has it that during the Ottoman Empire rule in Bulgaria, people were trained to reverse the meaning of shaking and nodding heads in an attempt to confuse Turkish occupiers. The habit stuck and nodding means a "no" in Bulgaria.

There's some weird, wacky things in this world, and this certainly ranks up there as one of the oddest cultural behaviors I've encountered.

I certainly would've thought that being surrounded by countries that don't engage in this habit would've suppressed or eliminated this ages ago, but for now, it looks like the Bulgarian nod for 'no' is here to stay.




February 3rd, 2009

I had the same problem in Greece in the 70's where nay means yes
imagine the mix message you give when you think you are saying no
and what is being understood is yes . . . .

Sri Lanka


October 6th, 2009

We Sri lankans dont nod when we say no, we move our head so that we face one shoulder then the other. The above article is wrong

The United States


March 18th, 2010

Another place to mention here is India. They sway their heads from side to side to mean yes. The Pro-Bulgars came from Asia so it's possible this body language is very ancient. The writer in this article is a bit close-minded and needs to educate himself better, I think.


florin dia

April 20th, 2010

I'm Romanian (that is, close to Bulgaria) and I know they do that confusing reverse nodding.
Liked your article.



November 26th, 2010

Um…. Nodding means yes in Bulgaria. I'm from Bulgaria and I know. Tilting your head up and down (nodding) is "yes" and tilting your head left and right is "no".

The United States


May 3rd, 2011

I am from Bulgaria too and I can say that this is definitely true. Some people do the usual nod for 'yes' but I would say most do the nod for 'no'.

And the author of this article is an ignoring idiot… when you're in someone else's country you conform to their norms. Just because their customs are difficult for you to grasp does NOT make that country a "bizarre backwards land".

The Philippines

laura maslow

July 11th, 2011

is this accurate? cause im gonna use this for my school article tomorrow about body language..thanks.



July 15th, 2012

I am from Bulgaria and things now are even more confusing because some people a re influenced by everyone else and use nodding for "yes"and shaking for "no" and some people don't change their habits so you need to ask "What was that?Yes or No?" :D It's very funny sometimes



August 15th, 2013

There is a folk saying that the "reverse" nod that you mention was from the time the ottomans or other oppressors put a blade under your chin whit the top pointing to your head and asked you for something.You cant shake your head up and down because you will impale yourself on the blade so you had to shake sideways your head in agreement.

The United States

Bob Billingsley

August 18th, 2014

I remember reading long ago that it had to do with being forced to convert to islam, this reference to the Ottoman Turks is as close as I've since found.

Note: Comments are open to everyone. To reduce spam and reward regular contributors, only submissions from first-time commenters and/or those containing hyperlinks are moderated, and will appear after approval. Hateful or off-topic remarks are subject to pruning. Your e-mail address will never be publicly disclosed or abused.