Saturday, October 15, 2011

Speaking Italian Without Words: Using Hand Gestures in Conversation

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:

Finger Purse
Finger Purse

1 Finger purse.
Bunch your fingers together, with tips touching and pointing upward. Hold your arm about a foot from your body. You can either hold your hand still or move it up and down at the wrist. Translation: “Ma che vuoi?” (“What do you really want? What do you mean?”)


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?”)

finger kiss

3. Finger kiss.
Bring your fingers together and lift your hand to your mouth. Touch your fingers to your lips. Translation: “Eccellente!“ (“Excellent! You deserves a kiss!”)

Chin flick

4. Chin flick
: Bend your arm at the elbow, palm and fingers facing your body. Bring your hands to your throat and run your fingers lightly upward from your neck past the tip of your chin.
Translation: “Che *&#@ me ne frega!” (“I don’t give a *&#@!”)

Temple point.

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!)

Line in the air.

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!“)

Cheek screw

7.Cheek screw.
Extend the index finger of one hand and corkscrew it into the cheek. Translation: “Delicious!” Parents use this gesture to encourage children to eat. A Neapolitan waiter told me that he signals the best-tasting dishes on the menu in this way. I’ve also seen Italian men doing the very same thing on the street when a tasty-looking girl walks by.

Eyelid Pull

8. Eyelid pull.
Using your index finger, tugging at your bottom eyelid.
Translation: “Stai attenti” (“Watch out! Pay attention!”) I’ve seen this gesture at street markets when a fast-talking salesman tries to pass off counterfeit goods as the real thing.

Fingers crossed.

9. Finger cross.
Bring the index fingers of both hands together to form an “x” in front of your mouth. Translation: “I swear it!” This also signals that you will remain silent and not say a word.

circle in the air.

10. Circle in the air. With your hand at your side, extend one index finger and trace a small circle in the air. Translation: “A dopo.” “See you later! We’ll catch up another time.”)

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.

Before unveiling your new wordless vocabulary on your next trip to Italy, you might want to rehearse specific gestures with some Italian friends or acquaintances. You don’t want to fare brutta figura (make a bad impression) — something that’s easy to avoid if you’re careful about what you say when you’re not saying anything out loud.

Diane Hales

Dianne Hales is a widely published journalist and health writer. She lives with her family in Marin County, California. You can find out more about Dianne at her Web site ( and on Facebook.

Italian Without Words: Using Hand Gestures in Conversation |

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