Whether you have been to Italy, have Italian-American neighbors, watched Italian films or read many memoirs about Italy – you’ve surely heard by now that many Italians speak with their hands. In fact, they have their own brand of sign language. They are the masters of the unspoken art of the hand gesture.
I’m not Italian, but I fall into the category of being very animated and often flail my hands about when I’m speaking. The difference with me is that I’m sure no one could actually understand what I’m trying to say with my hand gestures. Unless of course you’re the dude that cut me off of the road the other day. In that case, I’m sure everyone could understand that universal hand gesture. But, I digress.
If you’re like me, and have always wondered what some of these hand gestures are and what they mean, I suggest you pick up a copy of Speak Italian: The Fine Art of the Gesture. It’s definitely a fun and informative little guide.
The book covers many gestures ranging from “Do you have a cigarette?” to “Call me”. It shows you how to ask for a drink and how to mention that something is excellent.
I’m certainly not suggesting that hand gestures should replace your study of Travel Italian for your vacation, or that you should even attempt to communicate using some hand gestures. But, what I do think is that it may come in handy knowing some of these gestures and it may help you prevent any misunderstandings, embarrassment or worse yet – insulting the locals.
One example that comes to mind is the difference between how Americans and Italians count using their hands. When Americans want to use their hands to show the number ‘one’ – we hold up our index finger and count up from there. When Italians count, they start with their thumb as the number ‘one’. So while you’re holding up your index and middle fingers to indicate ‘two’, this may be confusing, as this would be ‘three’ for Italians, as they would start the count with their thumb.
So, while you think you’re giving someone the ‘thumbs-up’, Italians may thinking you’re counting. And when you may be flashing a peace-sign – they may think your saying ‘I really have to go’.
While this certainly isn’t harmful or insulting to anyone – it’s just a small nuance that may or may not be a little confusing. And that might not necessarily be a bad thing. In fact, it may lead to a rather funny and memorable exchange.
So what do you think? Do you have a favorite Italian hand gesture? Would you attempt to try any hand gestures during your travels to Italy?