This gesture comes from my roommate, NH, who is half Indian and participated in Bharatanatyam dance for 14 years.
“In Indian culture, instead of an up and down head nod that is common in American culture, a side to side tilt is more common. It is used often when answering ‘yes’ to a question or to indicate that you understand what someone is telling you,” NH said.
“I encountered it the most when at dance practice, as my dance teacher would often use it. My grandmother also uses it,” NH said. She also mentioned that as a kid she would sometimes use this gesture after being around her grandmother, but as she grew older, the American up and down nod became more second nature.
After some research, I discovered that this gesture NH described to me is often called the “Indian head bobble/wobble” and can be used to express a range of emotions. One website described an array of bobble subgroups such as “The Hello Wobble,” “The Acknowledgment Wobble,” “The Sign of Respect Wobble,” “The No / Yes / Maybe Wobble,” “The Not Sure / Maybe / Perhaps Wobble,” and “The Got it! Wobble.” I find it very interesting that NH only described “yes wobble” and “the got it wobble.” I’m sure it just takes conversational context to figure out what someone’s wobble means, but it is very fascinating that the same gesture can mean so many things.