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Does that just mean

"someone is smiling and shaking his/her head"

or

"someone is laughing out loud?"

  • The phrase in your title is not idiomatic English. Could you post the entire phrase and the context where you found it? – Tᴚoɯɐuo May 24 '15 at 13:11
  • I've interpreted your question as referring to the idiom 'smile and shake one's head' (see my answer). If that is not correct, and you mean something else, edit your question and comment on my answer. – user6951 May 24 '15 at 13:21
  • It's the context I found the sentence. 'Two people on one sofa lean towards another person on the opposite sofa. They smile and shake their heads and, eventually, the one on her own starts to cry.' – hayeonemily May 24 '15 at 15:10
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It means to acknowledge some situation or something that someone has said, without making any further comment on the matter.

It is similar to bite one's tongue. You might want to say something, but the best thing to do in some situations is to just "bite your tongue" or "Smile and shake your head."

You might want to do this when someone says something (a) you don't agree with, (b) have heard them say 1000 times, or (c) when you have no idea what they are talking about. In all cases, you are disguising your true thoughts on the matter.

  • I think (a) and (b) are good examples and reflect my experience with the phrase, but the disguising your true thoughts conclusion seems inaccurate, especially in light of those examples. In (b), for example, smiling and shaking your head can indicate "let's not go down this road again, we both know how that's going to go" – Jonah Sep 22 '15 at 3:05
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It is possible to imagine a commonplace dramatic (or melodramatic) context for this description:

'Two people on one sofa lean towards another person on the opposite sofa. They smile and shake their heads and, eventually, the one on her own starts to cry.'\

On TV shows and in the movies, this is often how someone is informed, without words, that their loved one "didn't make it", that is, has not survived emergency surgery, for example.

  • This is not right. People don't smile when reporting a loved one has died. I could see "The doctor pressed his lips together, shook his head, and put his hand John's shoulder," but smile? To me, "Smile and shake your head" typically has a flavor of absurd comedy and resignation. – Jonah Sep 22 '15 at 3:02
  • There are many kinds of smiles. A smile does not always express joy. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Sep 22 '15 at 12:05
  • Regardless a smile is not a good description for the expression a doctor makes when delivering bad news. – Jonah Sep 22 '15 at 13:47
  • But it isn't just "smile" -- "they smile and shake their heads". Besides, it's not my description, just my attempt to provide a plausible context for a facial/head gesture that is being described in minimal terms. The OP did not provide much context when it was requested. You might want to follow up on that point with the OP. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Sep 22 '15 at 15:10

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