Hand-gesture language in Italy and in the world

Hand gestures and their meaning can be so varied that in some countries represent a parallel language, used along with vocal language. Why is hand-gesturing so important to some cultures? Why it is less important to others?

Hand gesture language


He is honking his car’s horn with frenzy. He is really mad at me.

Trying to decide whether I should be angry or amused, I look at him. He is a middle-aged Caucasian.

Then I look at his license plate. His car has a Zurich number, like mine.

I didn’t experience many of these encounters here in Switzerland. However, I experienced plenty of them in my native country, Italy. First clue.

When two lanes are finally–for him–available, he can flank me and express all his rage.

He starts a complicate gesture-speech. I can clearly understand that he compares my speed to the one of an old biddy riding a bike. No, I mean, seriously, he mimed the act of pedaling with his hands. Clear, isn’t it? Second clue.

I reply by pointing my finger at a red light and by miming my car slowing down while approaching it.

He doesn’t consider my reasons to be good enough, as he declares is unwillingness to waste his time with me and tells me to buzz off. His gestural expressiveness is way more advanced than the one any Swiss could ever have.

Of course he is Italian. Now I know it for certain, as he probably knows I’m Italian as well. Eventually noticing a banner of an Italian soccer team in his cockpit is just an unnecessary confirmation.

That was the moment I realized how hand language is crucial to some countries and cultures. It was also clear to me that–as it happens with spoken languages–different dialects exist, and not necessarily mutually understandable. When I looked at the nasty man’s signs I could understand all of them, with no hesitation. Why? Because we both shared the same hand language.

Did an American express the same concepts, I would have probably understood little to nothing, except the fact the he disliked me. Or maybe a Japanese. I checked this webpage on Japanese gestures and could understand only a few of them.

I tried to think of as many gestures as I could. In one minute I could recall 14 of them, but I’m sure I know many more. Besides, there are many others I don’t even know. This worldwide gesture list includes some from Southern Italy that I have never seen so far. Do you recognize some gestures typical of your country in that?

However, I personally tend to contain my hand-speaking as much as I can. My tendency to use it is strong (I was raised in Italy), but I find it annoying when I see other people gesticulating massively. Besides, I’m an expat. I don’t try to blur myself in the crowd, but I don’t find attractive being instantly pinned as an Italian either.

By the way, why is hand language so important to some cultures? Why is less present in others? I long meditated about it, but I cannot even get closer to a definitive answer.

What about your culture? Is hand-gesturing largely used in your country? Do you personally use it a lot? Does it bother you when used by others?

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2 Thoughts on “Hand-gesture language in Italy and in the world

  1. For me not speaking “by hand” is a matter of good parenting – that’ all.

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