Written by:
Jan 9, 2020

Italian Hand Gestures: Communicating Beyond Language

When you start learning a new language, your primary goal is to master the basics of conversation--to be able to express yourself using simple, correct sentences. That’s why you usually tend to focus more on grammar and vocabulary, neglecting other aspects of the language that might be just as important. Aspects like nonverbal communication.

As a matter of fact, in face-to-face interaction, a key part of what’s being communicated is conveyed with the use of hand gestures, postures, facial expressions and grimaces rather than by words themselves.

This is especially true for Italian, which, as recently highlighted by the studies of psychology professor Isabella Poggi, boasts a repertoire of over 250 distinct gestures used on a daily basis by its native speakers.

It would be no exaggeration to say body language pervades all areas of Italian social life, including business etiquette and the political spectacle. Whether they’re walking down the street, sitting behind the wheel or talking on the phone, many Italians can’t help but move their hands and bodies in flamboyant and elaborate ways--much to the amusement and confusion of non-Italian passersbys.

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Gesturing has a rich history in Italy. Some researchers believe that it was developed as a secret form of communication during the centuries of foreign occupation by Austria, France, and Spain. Another theory holds that hand signs first took roots in overpopulated cities like Naples, where they became a way of “marking one’s territory”, getting attention and making oneself visible. What is certain is that gestures evolved much more slowly than verbal languages, so much so that the gestures used by contemporary Italians still perfectly resemble the ones depicted on ancient Greek vases discovered in the Naples area. 

Nowadays, this nonverbal, yet highly expressive code has reached a high degree of conventionalization and can be considered a proper language – it even has its own dictionary! Gesturing is internalized at a young age and is then used effortlessly and almost unconsciously to complement, or even replace, verbal language in Italy. Hand signs can indeed add structure to one’s speech, reinforce an idea or provide additional information that words alone cannot convey.

In Italy gestures are used to express a wide variety of feelings--ranging from disapproval to anger, from pleasure to happiness; some of them are offensive, others pretty mundane, others yet are linked to old sayings and idioms, even to superstitious beliefs.

Italian hand gestures

A further common characteristic of the nonverbal language is its polysemy, which means that the same sign can take on different meanings depending on the context in which it’s being used. The use (and intensity of use!) of signs is also very individual and might vary from region to region.

Lastly, most Italian hand gestures are not universal, and thus, not used in the same way in other countries and cultures. Bear this in mind if you want to avoid embarrassing misunderstandings. 

Here’s an example:

A few years ago I was dining with some friends at a restaurant in Germany. Towards the end of the meal, the waiter came by our table to make sure everything was to our liking. To show her appreciation for the food, one of the girls from our group smiled radiantly and rubbed her index finger into her cheek – a typical Italian sign meaning “That is delicious!”. She must have thought that this gesture was internationally recognized, but it wasn’t... and in result, she got a kiss on her cheek from the puzzled waiter!

To conclude, there is an old saying in Italy that goes “A gesture is worth more than a thousand words” (Un gesto vale più di mille parole) – and I believe it has so much truth to it.

To show you how we Italians communicate without the use of words, I have picked out some of our most emblematic gestures and found clips of them for you. Don’t forget to practice them and to let me know which one you liked best!

  1. “that is delicious!”
  2. “are you crazy?”
  3. “there’s nothing here”
  4. “perfect!”
  5. “be careful”
  6. “you’re scared, right?”

Eager to learn more? Check out “The Voice of the Body” (La voce del corpo), a most delightful documentary and project by the Sicilian film-maker Luca Vullo exploring the rich cosmos of nonverbal communication in Italy.

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About the Author: Viola Librenti is a translator who, as part of her work, translates for Drops.

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