Italian Without Words: Using Hand Gestures in Conversation
Italians, with their innate passion to communicate, have never let words get in the way. In Italy the shrug of a shoulder, the flip of a wrist or the lift of an eyebrow says more than a sacco di parole (sack of words).
Gestures are to Italian conversation what punctuation is to writing. Hands become exclamation points, periods, commas, question marks.Even before the law banned talking on cell phones while driving, Italians would pull over to the side of the road because they couldn’t drive and carry on a conversation. In the old days of telephone booths, Italians would step outside so they would have space to express themselves fully.
Whether you realize it or not, you are already somewhat fluent in Italian body language. Gestures used in other countries — such as holding up an index finger to speak or interrupt, putting a finger to the lips to request silence or scratching one’s head when befuddled — translate precisely into wordless Italian.
And you can always improvise. If something smells bad, you don’t have to say “che puzza!” Simply pinch your nose. If you’re hungry, pat your stomach. If you can’t hear what someone is saying, cup your ear.
The meaning of other gestures can vary from region to region and always depend on context. A clenched fist can signify rage, irritation, anger or threat, for instance. Fingers bunched together may indicate complexity or confusion.
The next time you’re in piazza, give yourself a crash course in “silent” Italian with a few hours of careful observation. Here are ten basic and useful gestures:
2. Prayer. Clasp your palms together with fingers extended and press them in front of the chest as if you were praying Translation: “Ti prego!” (“I beg you. Please, would you do me a favor?”)
5 . Temple point: Extend your index finger and bring it close to the temple on one side of your head
Translation: “Usa la testa!” (Use your head! Don’t be stupid!)
6. Line in the air: Press the thumb and index finger of one hand together and draw a straight horizontal line drawn in the air.’
Translation: “Perfetto!” (“Perfect!“)
Americans often ask if Italians “flip the bird” and give someone the finger. The equivalent gesture is more emphatic: They clench the right fist and jerk the forearm up while slapping the right bicep with the left palm. It is considered both rude and obscene, and I highly advise against using it.
If you provoke this gesture by someone else (as often happens between drivers), I suggest tapping your forehead with the palm of your hand — a fairly universal signal for having done something stupid.
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