Why do the Japanese rub the back of their heads and hiss through their teeth?

This seems such a natural reaction to difficult questions and impossible requests that the Japanese rarely notice that they use it, but it’s definitely more common here than in any other country I know. It’s also much more common among men than women and much more common at work than elsewhere. I think it’s just a consequence of the difficulty of simply saying “No”. Note that sucking of teeth is in no way the aggressive sound it is in some cultures.

Just added to my much expanded Japanese Gestures and Body Language page here.




  1. Hisham said,

    March 12, 2015 at 11:37 pm

    Many thanks Alex … I found this very useful

  2. fallui said,

    March 10, 2017 at 8:30 am

    That sharp intake of breath is a natural reaction to pain, real or vicarious. I think you might notice yourself doing it if you burn your finger or see someone else take a bad fall on ice, for example.

    Wincing, hissing, and helplessly scratching the back of the head are all ways of dramatizing the distress caused by the unfortunate request. After all that, continuing to press the issue would be inconsiderate, so absolute refusal is avoided.

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