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"Yes" or "no" depends on which country you're in

"I'll have coffee," I tell the waitress at a cafe during my first week in Bulgaria. She shakes her head from side to side. "Okay, tea," I say, thinking that maybe there's something wrong with the coffee machine. Again, she shakes her head. 

"Um ... cola?" Once more, she shakes her head. By now, she's looking at me like I'm crazy, and I'm totally confused. Then I remember: A shake of the head by a Bulgarian means "yes," and a nod for "yes" actually means "no."

I knew about this before I arrived in Bulgaria, but it's amazing how something that seems simple and easy enough to remember can lead to so much confusion.

When I began teaching, all this head-bobbing made communication in the classroom interesting. Although I had made sure my students knew about this cultural difference on the first day of school, we all frequently forgot what we were doing. My students would answer a question correctly or say something really great, and I'd nod. A second later, they were trying to change their answer, since they thought the nod meant they had been wrong.

And the confusion went both ways. Sometimes I'd ask a student a yes-or-no question and he would answer with a nod or a shake, without saying anything. Not remembering the difference, we'd have to go through the motions several times before I understood. Frequently I found myself saying: "Da or ne — just tell me one or the other!"

I also had to deal with confused colleagues who couldn't figure out why I kept nodding my head while they talked, as if I were arguing with them when I was really just trying to show that I understood the story.

And then there was the even greater problem of how to act with Bulgarians who spoke English and were aware of the nodding/shaking problem. Was I supposed to nod or shake for "yes" when I was speaking English with them? And what was I supposed to do when we were speaking Bulgarian? What if we were in a situation where both languages were being spoken? To make matters even more complicated, after going a couple of weeks without any contact with other Americans, we'd finally get together and I'd find myself shaking when I should have been nodding. My head was spinning!

After a year of living there, the gestures became second nature, and I rarely have to think about what my body language should be.

As a result, I've come to understand the importance of using all my senses in a new culture and of not making assumptions that a gesture or other form of communication, even one that seems simple—means the same thing everywhere.

Tuning in to how the people around me communicate has brought me closer to the people and the culture here. And whenever we slip up and forget to control our heads, the laughter that follows brings us together. Luckily, a smile is a smile the world over.

This is an excerpt from a personal essay written by returned Peace Corps Volunteer Elizabeth Kelley, Bulgaria 2003-05. This essay was collected by Peace Corps’ Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools program. It connects PCVs and RPCVs to classrooms in the United States, and provides a variety of resources for educators to integrate global competence and cultural awareness into the classroom.