Why do Italians gesture?
The Italian Carnivals
February 16, 2023

Yes, it’s true : Italians gesture and this is not a simple cliché.

Not only do Italians gesture a lot, but behind every gesture there is a precise and careful vocabulary. There is an Italian language that is written and spoken and there is one expressed with the hands.

In Hollywood movies about Italians or Italian Americans, the actors don’t just study the Italian accent, but above all they try to imitate gestures.

Gestures not only accompany speech, but often they are also able to replace words. In a less formal context in Italy it is possible to speak without opening the mouth and emitting sounds.

Here are just a few examples:

An annoying person is bothering you and you want to ask them what they want? It’s very simple: you press your thumb against your other fingers, and then you move your hand a couple of times back and forth. The “mano a cuoppo” is an innate characteristic of every Italian and in the non-verbal language is like the wild card in poker: it has many different meanings. In fact with that simple gesture you can ask a person where they are going, what they are doing, what they are eating.

This picture of Nicolò Barella, an Italian soccer player, became viral during the European soccer championships 2021

In practice, the “mano a cuoppo” can accompany almost all questions, especially those in which the speaker perceives something strange.It is so well known worldwide, that in 2020 it became an emoticon to use for textinng on social media or in messages.

The emoticon of “mano a cuoppo” published in 2020

Is someone telling you a rumor that you frankly don’t care about? Place your fingernails on the base of your neck, drag your hand to your chin and detach it completely. Your message will be more than clear!

A person asks you a question and your answer is “nothing”? Close your hand with a fist, just extend your thumb and index finger, now slightly rotate your thumb first to one side and then to the other. Great!

The way to say “Sorry, I don’t care at all!”

Is something going according to your plan or as you expected? Join your thumb and forefinger while keeping the other fingers wide open. Keep your hand on the left side of your abdomen and then drag your hand to the right side. You can use this gesture to say: I KNEW IT !

The way to say “Perfect!” or “I knew it!”

There are various theories that try to explain why Italian people are so used to gesturing. The most interesting is the one expressed on the pages of the New York Times by Isabella Poggi, professor of psychology at the University of Rome. According to her, the Italian gestures’ origins are linked to the colonization by the Greeks of southern Italy. From the VIII century B.C. many regions of southern Italy were invaded by Greek populations, who founded numerous colonies and cities here. These cities were often very chaotic and populous, for this reason, according to Isabella Poggi, when a person spoke, it was necessary to draw all attention to himself and to do so the whole body was used. According to other theories in the context of Magna Graecia the gesticulation not only made the speaker more listened, but even more attractive!

Pisticci’s Painter, pelike,
Women and Eros,
around 440/ 430 a. C.

There is another interesting theory about this topic: since the fifteenth century the Italian peninsula has been a land of conquests by many populations: French, Spanish, Austrian… According to this theory, the Italians developed a real non-verbal language known only to them, to ensure that the occupants could not understand what they were communicating with each other.

Two leggends: the Neapolitan Totò and the French Fernandel durign a scene of the movie “La legge è legge” (1958)