The Italians, the masters of the unspoken art

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When it comes to body language, the Italians simply rule. They need to speak with their hands.

Everyone recognizes this distinctive trait from Italian culture. As they talk, their hands fly and make unmistakable signs. The beauty of Italian hand gestures is also evident in how the countless different meanings can be constructed through creative use of the hands. It is more than speaking, it is expressing a feeling, an unspoken art.

Some scholars argue that these iconic hand movements have been with the Italians for centuries, they were introduced by the Greeks who once colonized Southern Italy. In crowded southern Italian cities, there was a need for competition to call attention on oneself.

These gestures survived, they have been passed down through the generations for hundred of years, even more than language. About 250 hand gestures have been identified that Italian use in everyday conversations. There are gestures to insult, to beg, to swear and sometimes love too. It’s a language of its own with its own complex vocabulary as not everything can be said with words.

One of the most famous is of course : “Ma che stai a dì/ma che vuoi?” also understood in English as "What the hell are you saying?" : The fingertips of either hand are brought together, upright while the hand is waved up and down. Frequently used in conversations and also on phone, sometimes while talking to oneself. Very common in Naples.

Sometimes, there can be true poetry behind a gesture, which is the case with the gesture used to communicate “perfetto!” (perfect). The thumb and index finger form a ring, with the other three fingers fanned out. The hand is then moved slowly across the chest as though gently dancing, accompanied by a facial expression portraying great satisfaction.

But some gestures are also the expressions of precise concepts that can be used to effectively replace speech like the movement meaning “non c’è niente” (there is nothing), in which one makes a “gun” gesture and rotates the wrist, paired with a sorrowful and dramatic facial expression.

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Italians wouldn’t be Italians without a little irony and satire expressed through theatrical gestures. “Too much talking” or “blah blah blah,” in which the hand could almost be seen to be mimicking a puppet chatting away to itself. This is used when someone is talking too much and is saying something that perhaps isn’t exactly true.

Be warned: using the wrong gesture to the wrong person can have serious repercussions.