The Man Nod | Defining a Global Phenomenon

A universal greeting with evolutionary ties

Matt Isola
RE: Write
Published in
3 min readFeb 12, 2018

What is it?

Urban Dictionary defines the event as:

“A nod of the head similar to the nod of acknowledgement but can be used between any two men, not just friends. It is an unspoken greeting in which only another man nod is an appropriate response.”

It’s what men do to greet each other in public places. It takes place on a binary scale:

  • Up = familiar men
  • Down = unfamiliar men (requires at least a minimal amount of respect)

There are no studies or statistics conducted on this interaction, but my educated guess is that millions of man-nods occur each day. In case you don’t know, a downward man-nod looks something like this:

Downward man-nods indicate the presence of respect

The downward occurs when two men don’t know each other well. It takes on a more serious, formal tone due to lack of familiarity. The upward man-nod is a much different action, much more friendly. It often looks something like this:

Peyton Manning employing the Upward Nod. Likely in acknowledgement of someone he has seen before.

What does it mean?

In the simplest terms, an upward nod means a casual “hey” or “what’s up”.

Downward means “Hello, I see that you exist, but we aren’t cool enough for anything more than that”.

An unspoken rule about the nod is that it is rarely followed by any verbal exchange. All that needs to be said is communicated through the gesture, and it can be quite awkward if this rule is broken.

The nod is a medium for which variable amounts of dominance or dismissiveness can be expressed, and a means of de-escalation among strangers to mitigate the discomfort of direct eye-contact.

Where did it come from?

The nod is written into our DNA. It is a universal greeting used across borders. It’s never taught, yet used by millions of men. If you need proof, find a bench in a crowded place and observe guys that make eye contact. It’s instinctive! We can’t control it.

There is an evolutionary explanation for the man-nod. In his book the Moral Animal, Robert Wright posits that the nod is a product of our animal instinct. Tilting our head down protects the neck and is done when acknowledging strangers. Tilting up exposes the neck, shows vulnerability, and signifies trust when acknowledging those we are comfortable with.

The opposite of those motions can be viewed as expressions of dominance. Upward shows despite increased vulnerability, that there’s no need for fear or to even protect yourself, that whoever’s walking past is an insignificant threat.

Is the man-nod exclusive to men?

Not at all. Plenty of women are aware of the man-nod, and many use it. However, using the man-nod across genders has had mixed results according to some. For whatever reason, there seems to be a higher rate of miscommunication. I personally tend to smile at women, and nod to men.

Why is it important?

As casual as the man-nod sounds, it plays a vital role in society. The man nod allows two men to passive aggressively assert perceived dominance onto another man, leaving both feeling like they have attained some social advantage over the other. The man-nod is a harmless diffusion of evolutionary tension to be the alpha male.

Like the wave and the smile, the man-nod is part of a small group of universal gestures. It’s globally recognizable. It’s an easy way to say “sup”.



Matt Isola
RE: Write

Aggregator of Viewpoints. Notebook Aficionado.