My friends can see me talking from a mile away, even with my back turned. I’m the one with my hands gesticulating in the air, sometimes with elegant precision as I speak on my cell phone, sometimes with wild abandon as I’m ordering a sandwich. That’s because I was raised in an Italian household. Italians are typically expressive, passionate, and animated when communicating with others. It’s a demonstration of engagement and interest. Have you ever seen an Italian converse with his or her hands in their pockets? Never happens.
Italians, young and old, male or female, gesture naturally. Whether they’re busy licking a gelato, smoking a cigarette, or zipping a manual-shift car around a hilltop town, Italians are quite adept at pairing any activity with vivid hand gestures when engaged in conversation. Writing letters must drive most Italians crazy, as expression is limited. I regularly use emoticons when dashing off an email or posting on social media, because sometimes words are just not enough, and it’s the closest I can get to gesturing. ;-)
Most people shake hands, but Italians typically grasp the other’s arm at the same time. Eye contact is important to them, and so is close personal contact. In fact, once a relationship is established, even if an acquaintance, a kiss on both cheeks upon greeting is the norm. Public displays of affection among Italians are prevalent, both among couples and families. Sons and daughters are equally apt to hug and kiss their parents as a sign of respect and affection, and strolling arm and arm through Italian towns as an expression of companionship is practiced by neighbors and friends as much as by Italian couples, who typically prefer a lip lock and tight embrace as further acknowledgement of their mutual affinity.
Americans are known to gesture on occasion, such as a flipped bird (raised middle finger) during rush hour traffic, or pressed thumbs and knuckles in the shape of a heart from a mother to her child on the school bus, or the peace sign from a graduate accepting his diploma, among others. But here are a few Italian gestures you may or may not be aware of:
- To gesture “Come here,” instead of beckoning with an index finger, an Italian sweeps an entire arm downward.
- That beckoning index finger might signal a romantic enticement in both cultures. But in Italian culture, one might also do the same to signal that he or she wishes to convey something very important to another.
- Index fingers pressed against the thumbs with a slight waggle of both hands means an exasperated “What do you want from me?”
- The index finger twisted into the cheek means something is good, lovely, or tasty.
- Tapping one’s wrist means “Hurry up.”
- Two open hands stands for “What’s happening here?”
- Waggling two hands pressed together as if in fervent prayer begs the question, “What do you want me to do about it?”
- The backside of one’s fingers brushing the chin is a classic blow off, as in “Who gives a flying fig?”
- My grandfather used to pat his throat, and say “gola, gola,” meaning that he had chocolate candy or decadent cookies to share. And my nana would simply throw her arms wide, demonstrating the need for a grandchild’s hug.
No matter the exuberant gesture, signal, facial or bodily indication, of which there are hundreds, Italians use them to enhance communication in an uninhibited, liberating way. Take it or leave it, we’re just letting you know how passionate we are on a subject.