Journal Relationship

On Chin Bobbing

John Owens

On Chin Bobbing

There is something interesting about human behavior that I have noticed since I’ve been a child, but have never heard it discussed, much less explained. I’d love to figure it out. I remember riding my bike as an eight-year-old, and on seeing another guy, both of us–though not necessarily simultaneously– would raise our chins slightly, a peaceful acknowledgment of the other’s existence. This is apparently a cross cultural phenomenon: the same thing happens here in India. A variant is a lowering of the chin slightly, a dip. It’s, in part, a silent hello, though I’ve never seen it in groups, just between (usually) two males, and usually at a distance of 3 to 10 meters apart.

I don’t frequently see this gesture with girls or women. It could be occurring more often, but I may not have noticed it, or unconsciously ignored it when it does happen. I don’t personally recall ever chin bobbing at a woman; it just doesn’t feel right for me to do so. But that’s just me. So correct me, please, if I’m mistaken on that. Still, what exactly is the use and the message of this gesture? When did it evolve? Do other primates exhibit this behavior for similar reasons?

As I take a moment now to indulge in practicing this gesture in the privacy of my apartment, I have a sense that the chin bob, as I’ll call it, is something that goes way back to prehistoric times, a signal to other hunters to awareness of the tribe moving together in connection. Maybe the slight and fleeting exposure of the neck is an implicit signal of one’s vulnerability and absence of threat to the other. Certainly, our reptilian brain is forever on the lookout for threats, and signals that assure the absence of such are required for us to get past the fight/flight/freeze response and use more highly evolved parts of our brains, like the neocortex.

But that’s all just my speculation, stuff I’m making up and should hold pretty lightly until I have some real evidence. What are your thoughts and experiences around this phenomenon? How about you try it out on a stranger you are passing by, just a brief chin bob while gazing at the person, and note what their response is? Do they return the gesture? Do both men and women do it?

Will this change the world, or promote peace? I doubt it, but if such a gesture lowers others’ threat response, it may be useful to signal—in this age of fear and hypersensitivity to the ‘alien other’—that we mean no harm and are approachable. It’s almost as good as that most intimate gesture of inclusion…the wink.

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