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 (i gesti) 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.
A recent article in The New York Times reported on the long history of Italian gestures. Here are ten of the most basic and useful ones:
1. Prayer (above). Clasp your palms together with fingers extended and press them in front of the chest as if you were praying.
Translation: “Please, would you do me a favor?”
2. Finger kiss. Bring your fingers together and lift your hand to your mouth. Touch your fingers to your lips.
Translation: “Excellent! This deserves a kiss!”
3. 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: “I don’t give a *&#@!”
4. 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: “What do you really want? What do you mean?”
5. Temple point. Extend your index finger and bring it close to the temple on one side of your head
Translation: Use your head! Don’t be stupid!
6. 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.
7. Line in the air. Press the thumb and index finger of one hand together and draw a straight horizontal line drawn in the air.
8. Eyelid pull. Using your index finger, tug at your bottom eyelid.
Translation: “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.
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.
10. Circle in the air. With your hand at your side, extend one index finger and trace a small circle in the air.
Translation: “See you later! We’ll catch up another time.”
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language. Click here for more information on joining her for a week of writing, cooking, and savoring Italian pleasures in Capri this fall.
Click below for a delightful lesson in timeless Italian gestures: