Enough to Make Your Head Spin

A story by a Peace Corps Volunteer

By Elizabeth (Vernon) Kelley - Peace Corps Volunteer: Bulgaria (2003-2005)

"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. "OK, 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?what the rest of the world does for "yes"?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, and so many funny moments. Early on, when I communicated with Bulgarians, it seemed like my head was moving in ways my brain hadn't told it to. Sometimes I wanted to grab my ears and use them as controls. Learning a language with a completely different alphabet was challenging enough, without trying to figure out whether to nod or shake.

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. But the confusion went both ways. Sometimes I'd ask a student a yes-or-no question and he or she 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. In truth, I was just trying to show that I understood and was following along with 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 here, the gestures have become second nature, and I rarely have to think about what my body language should be. Once in a while, if I'm really tired or not thinking clearly, I find my head moving in a semi-circular nod?shake wobble, which the Bulgarians find quite amusing.

Along with all the funny moments this cultural difference has provided me and my Bulgarian friends, 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 very simple and universal—means the same thing everywhere. Beyond being conscious of the yes–no difference, I must make sure I am really listening and watching for other clues when someone is communicating with me. Here, a sound along the lines of a cluck of the tongue often accompanies a "no," and being aware of that helps me steer clear of confusion. 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. 

About the Author

Elizabeth (Vernon) Kelley

"I worked as a newspaper copy editor—editing stories, writing headlines, and designing pages—for five years before I decided it was time to stop sitting in front of a computer. I wanted to see more of the world and do something to help people improve their own lives in the process."

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