If in Bulgaria a person slowly nods their head at you in response to a question, this means their answer is actually ‘no’. Conversely, the gentle shaking of one’s head means ‘yes’. This bizarre cultural anomaly can be extremely frustrating for visitors to the country, especially if you’re not prepared for it. To make matters more confusing, some (but not all) Bulgarians will reverse this body language when they are aware you are a tourist.
This weird behaviour disproves a theory I read once which states that the shaking of the head as a negative response is a universal human trait, developed instinctively during infancy as the baby shakes its head away from the breast to indicate no further hunger (suggesting that the opposite gesture, the nod (meaning ‘yes’) is also innate). The writer of that paper clearly never attempted to rent a hotel room, order a sandwich, or indeed successfully do anything at all, in Sofia.
The conventional nod/head shake may well be innate however, as one rumour suggests the Bulgarians collectively trained themselves this mannerism while under Ottoman rule, to confuse the Turkish, and the habit simply stuck. While such a simple idea (if this explanation is correct) it was a very neat trick. It certainly confused the hell out of me, and it’s also not an easy manoeuvre to pull off.