By Elizabeth (Vernon) Kelley, published on the U.S. Peace Corps Coverdell World Wise Schools website. Used with permission.
"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."
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'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... means the same thing everywhere.... 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.