5.9k Share this
In the centre of Rome a couple called Francesco and Francesca are chatting animatedly. He’s sitting astride a parked Vespa, she’s standing in a long queue in one of the authorized AS Roma ticket agencies, waiting for her turn to buy tickets for an important football match. They’re separated by a plate glass window and can see but not hear each other. The conversation goes like this.
Francesco: “So what’s happening? Why is it taking so long?”
Francesca: “How should I know? The people in front of me have been there forever. Maybe they just died”.
Francesco: “Come on, this is a major pain, I have to go in exactly five minutes”.
Francesca: “Gosh you make me angry. I’m busy too you know… Wait!”
Suddenly it’s her turn. Francesco can see her talking intently to the ticket guy, then turning to face him once more.
Francesca: “If we want two seats together, nothing doing”.
Francesco: “Damn. Nothing at all?”
Francesca: “Nope. Not unless you want to pay a fortune”.
Francesco: “No thanks. What about two seats away from each other?”
She consults the ticket guy again, then turns to Francesco.
Francesca: “We’d be three rows apart. What do you reckon?”
Francesco: “Yeah, go ahead and buy them. We’ll sort something out when we get there”.
Francesca: “Okay, if you say so”.
No phones are being used here. The whole conversation has been carried out using a mixture of hand gestures, body movements and facial expressions, with a semantic clarity that would please even the strictest grammarian. The couple are communicating in sign language – but they’re not deaf. They’re just Italian. Because in the land of Pavarotti and Sophia Loren, language is about much more than words.
I’ve lived in Italy for more than 35 years. When friends from more northerly climes ask me why Italians wave their hands about so much, my first reaction is to ask: “Do they?” The more you learn to read these gestures, the less you notice them – because what initially looked like gratuitous hand-waving comes to seem a perfectly normal form of speech (one which, as my friends and family in the UK are quick to point out, I now indulge in myself, without even realizing I’m doing it).
My second reaction, once I admit that yes, when viewed from outside, Italians sure do wave their hands about a lot, is to add some regional nuance. In Amalfi, Brindisi or Palermo, it’s like they’re in training for the Gesticulation Olympics. In more reserved Milan or Turin, not so much.
But ask me why Italians are so fond of hand signals – except, of course, when driving or cycling – and I’ll most likely shrug. Actually no: having gone native, I’ll weaponise my shrug by simultaneously raising my eyebrows, sticking my bottom lip out, and extending both arms from the elbows with my thumb, forefinger and middle finger splayed out and and the other two pressing into my palm.
Flamboyant gesturing is not a universal Mediterranean characteristic, after all. Spaniards don’t gesticulate nearly as much as Italians, and an inhabitant of, say, Alexandria, is likely to seem positively Scandinavian in their manual inscrutability compared to a Neapolitan.
Naples is considered to be the world capital of gesture, the city where the Italian fondness for non-verbal communication first took root and reached its highest peak of refinement and expressivity.
For 19th-century cleric and archaeologist Andrea de Jorio, Neapolitan hand and body language bore a “perfect resemblance to that of antiquity”, as preserved on Greek vases, Roman wall paintings and ancient statuary. He wrote a book to prove as much: ‘Gesture in Naples and Gesture in Classical Antiquity’, still a classic of the (admittedly small) genre.
Australian scholar Adam Kendon, who has translated De Jorio’s book, believes the peculiar, overcrowded conditions of life in Naples fostered this parallel language system, “at once for its properties as a mode of display, for its usefulness as a silent mode of communication in circumstances too noisy for speech at a distance, and… its usefulness as a medium for concealed or ‘side’ communication”.
In this, aside from the long-distance element, it’s not that different from Cockney rhyming slang – another alternative language that blends theatricality, community pride and a system of ‘direct messaging’ incomprehensible to outsiders.
What follows is a guide to six of the most common Italian hand gestures. Practice them carefully, and even if you can’t speak the language, you’ll pass for a local, at least until you open your mouth. Though as the conversation we began with proves, you may not even need to say a word…
‘What do you want from me?’ or ‘What are you saying?’
This (shown above) is the Italian hand gesture per eccellenza, the first one you should learn to recognize. It covers a range of connected meanings, from “what do you want me to do?” through “what’s happening?” (as in the first line of the ‘conversation’ above) to “why are you talking such utter rubbish?” Rather aggressive, it’s generally accompanied by an exasperated expression and is not to be used with strangers or royalty. If you want to shout, do it with two hands. If you now bring those two pursed hands together at chest height and hold them still, or open and close the fingers a few times, you’re saying something completely different: “This place is packed”. You see what finely-tuned instruments those things on the end of your arms can be?
This one takes some practice. Get the angle of your hand wrong, or use too many fingers, and you risk getting punched. To stay on safe ground, use your left hand, make sure the ring is made only with the thumb and forefinger with the other three fingers extended, and move the arm at chest height from right to left, just the once, while making a ‘there’s nothing better’ face. Easy, right? And just so you know, I am not liable for personal injury or worse resulting to any reader using my hand gesture guide. You throw Italian finger shapes at your own risk.
‘No’, ‘Nothing’, or ‘Nothing doing’
This is an odd one, as it starts off looking like you’re planning to shoot someone (see legal disclaimer above). But that thumb and forefinger ‘pistol’ shape isn’t still, it twists back and forth with your forearm while you make a disappointed face. It’s the second of two gestures used by Francesca in our opening conversation to tell Francesco that there were no seats left in that part of the stadium where they could sit together. The first is the following…
‘Together’ or ‘They’re together’
Francesca used this simply to mean ‘next to each other’. But it’s more commonly used among groups of friends as a secret behind-their-backs gesture, to ask if two people are an item. If your interlocutor replies with number 3, you come back with number 2, and they throw a number 1 at you, you’ve got yourself a whole conversation going, and you’re an incorrigible skirt- or trouser-chaser.
‘Let’s get out of here’
Another gesture which is often used as secret code in social situations, this can be made in two ways: either with one hand batting sideways two or three times against the raised open palm of the other, or more discretely by just using one hand (the sideways-waggling one) – only the faintest finger movement is needed to convey to your friend or partner that they have been talking to that dullard for far too long and it’s time to tagliare la corda, or ‘cut the rope’. Which has of course generated another way to sign the same thing – by making a sideways scissor movement with the forefinger and middle finger.
‘What a bore!’
The idea here is you’re so bored that your testicles are swelling and in danger of exploding. The accompanying expression is ‘Che palle! – literally ‘What balls’ (in English this means ‘What a load of rubbish’, but in Italian it refers to something excruciatingly dull). The hand gesture that conveys this can take several forms, but the most common is to stand with elbows out at your sides and wave both hands downwards repeatedly towards the organs in question while making a disgusted ‘this is killing me’ expression and leaning backwards to thrust out your pelvic area. This one is gender neutral, I hasten to add. Italian women often have more fully developed metaphorical testicles than Italian men, and are not afraid to show it.