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When Italians chat, hands and fingers do the talking

In Italy, children, adolescents, the elderly, everyone gestures. To Italians, gesturing comes naturally, writes Rachel Donadio for the New York Times.

world Updated: Jul 02, 2013 03:46 IST
Rachel Donadio, New York Times
Rachel Donadio, New York Times

In the great open-air theater that is Rome, the characters talk with their hands as much as their mouths. While talking animatedly on their cellphones or smoking cigarettes or even while downshifting their tiny cars through rush-hour traffic, they gesticulate with enviably elegant coordination.

From the classic fingers pinched against the thumb that can mean “Whaddya want from me?” or “I wasn’t born yesterday” to a hand circled slowly, indicating “Whatever” or “That’ll be the day,” there is an eloquence to the Italian hand gesture. In a culture that prizes oratory, nothing deflates airy rhetoric more swiftly.

Some gestures are simple: The side of the hand against the belly means hungry; the index finger twisted into the cheek means something tastes good; and tapping one’s wrist is a universal sign for “hurry up.” But others are far more complex. They add an inflection - of fatalism, resignation, world-weariness - that is as much a part of the Italian experience as breathing.

Two open hands can ask a real question, “What’s happening?” But hands placed in prayer become a sort of supplication, a rhetorical question: “What do you expect me to do about it?” Ask when a bus might arrive, and the universal answer is shrugged shoulders, an “ehh” that sounds like an engine turning over and two raised hands that say, “Only when Providence allows.”

To Italians, gesturing comes naturally. “You mean Americans don’t gesture? They talk like this?” asked Pasquale Guarrancino, a Roman taxi driver, freezing up and placing his arms flat against his sides. He had been sitting in his cab talking with a friend outside, each moving his hands in elaborate choreography. Asked to describe his favorite gesture, he said it was not fit for print.

In Italy, children and adolescents gesture. The elderly gesture. Some Italians joke that gesturing may even begin before birth. “In the ultrasound, I think the baby is saying, ‘Doctor, what do you want from me?’” Laura Offeddu, an elaborate gesticulator, said as she pinched her fingers together and moved her hand up and down.

Sometimes gesturing can get out of hand. Last year, Italy’s highest court ruled that a man who inadvertently struck an 80-year-old woman while gesticulating in a piazza in the southern region of Puglia was liable for civil damages. “The public street isn’t a living room,” the judges ruled, saying, “The habit of accompanying a conversation with gestures, while certainly licit, becomes illicit” in some contexts.

In 2008, Umberto Bossi, the colorful founder of the conservative Northern League, raised his middle finger during the singing of Italy’s national anthem. But prosecutors in Venice determined that the gesture, while obscene and the cause of widespread outrage, was not a crime.

Gestures have long been a part of Italy’s political spectacle. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a noted gesticulator. When he greeted President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, at a meeting in September 2009, he extended both hands, palms facing toward himself, and then pinched his fingers as he looked Michelle Obama up and down - a gesture that might be interpreted as “va-va-voom.”

Isabella Poggi, an expert on gestures, has identified around 250 gestures Italians use in everyday conversation. “There are gestures expressing a threat or a wish or desperation or shame or pride,” she said.

Far more than quaint folklore, gestures have a rich history. One theory holds that Italians developed them as an alternative form of communication during the centuries when they lived under foreign occupation - by Austria, France and Spain in the 14th through 19th centuries - as a way of communicating without their overlords understanding.

Andrea De Jorio, a 19th-century priest and archaeologist, discovered comparisons between the gestures used by the figures painted on ancient Greek vases found in the Naples area and the gestures used by his Neapolitan contemporaries.

Over centuries, languages have evolved, but gestures remain.

By some accounts, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein overhauled - his theory that language was used to establish truth, to inform, after the Italian economist Piero Sraffa responded to his theory with a single gesture: fingers brushing the chin, indicating “I don’t give a damn,” the classic anti-authority brushoff. Such a gesture does not convey information; it negates it. “It’s a rebellion against power, a way of reacquiring one’s own dignity.”


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