The Smile and Nod - The Universal Language

Let’s give it up for the smile and nod. No matter what language you speak, or what awkward situation, the smile and nod can bring people together.


Photo by  Alexis Brown  on  Unsplash

Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

In a line for the bathroom at a portapotty, a woman, who clearly had to urinate badly, turns to me and says something in Portuguese. From the tone of voice, I imagine she says “this line is ridiculous! I’m gonna wet my pants before I get in there!” and then laughs. I smile, laugh a little and nod in agreement. I am also fed up with this line!

She smiles, I smile, we laugh. I have no idea what she said. She honestly has no idea if I understood her. But after the smile and nod, she felt like I agreed and we connected.


I hold the door for someone in Quebec. I don’t speak French. The old man, overjoyed to have a small kindness paid to him, says something kindly to me in French. I imagine he says “Thank you very much! You are so kind. Have a wonderful day” with a broad smile that seems to alight his whole face. I smile and nod, so heartened by his response.

He smiles kindly, I smile with my heart. I have no idea what he said and he honestly has no idea if I understood him. But after the smile and nod, he felt heard and cared for.


I approach a breakfast counter in Italy. The older woman at the counter sourly looks at me as I approach, not amused to be working or helping the foreigner. I order slowly “un caffè e … “ and I point to a pastry on the shelf. She asks me something in Italian, and I imagine she says “the cheese one?” and I smile as broadly and excitedly as I could muster and nod vigorously. She squints, not sure how to take me. She puts the coffee and the pastry on a tray and pushes it towards me. I say “grazie!” and smile and nod again. The tiniest smile appears on her face before she catches herself. “Prego” she barely says, and I imagine she’s not used to saying “you’re welcome.”

She smiled a little, I smiled a lot. I have no idea what she said and she thinks I’m crazy. But after the smile and nod, she dislikes me just a little less.

So to the smile and nod, I say … <smiles and nods>