Italian Gestures [I Gesti Italiani]

by Luke Archer

Italy talks just as much with its hands as it does with its mouth. I’ve done some more online pilfering and found this ‘resource’ to try and convey quite the extent of the hand-vocabulary possessed by the Italians. There are loads displayed below, but with my limited knowledge I am going to limit them down to the important ones I’ve seen.

The crucial gestures here are the first and third in the top row: this inward-pointing, clasped set of fingers seems to be able to mean absolutely anything. Almost a physical alternative for any of ‘omg, wtf, ffs or fml’, but can range in severity from a static ‘huh?’, to a shaking two-handed ‘someone’s gonna pay’. I haven’t actually seen this escalate into anything serious, maybe the gesture in itself provides some catharsis. Regardless, if this is how actively the Italians demonstrate mild-to-medium frustration, I am going to do my best not to provoke genuine rage.

Apart from introducing the no-nonsense sexual predator theme that crops up in a few of these diagrams (top-left, bottom-right) for intimidation and/or seduction (I’m guessing?), the two that I’ve actually come across are the ones accompanied by the sounds ‘umma umma’ and ‘basta’. The umma umma [ooma ooma] gesture has surely been born out of necessity due to the amount of under-the-table (implied by the hand movement) dealings that occur.  Prime example is the car park ‘attendants’ who just wait on any road and make you pay them when you park. You get to pay for a free parking space, or get to go home with your car damaged. A clever niche in the market they’re exploiting, but umma umma indeed.

The other one, ‘basta’ [that’s enough] is obvious enough by its accompanying gesture, but I just think the word fits the action so perfectly. The weight the word carries when uttered by an over-worked/over-stressed Italian person is comically unmistakable.

Here again are some hyper-masculine gestures (bottom-right). I can’t really comment on them as I have never seen anyone use them without irony, but it’s a funny sight when you see them in action nonetheless. The image for cool in the bottom-left is worth mentioning too, I’m not sure the image portrays it very clearly, but it is essentially employed by running your thumb down the side of your face. This apparently derives from when prisoners would have scars on their cheeks, and when it also used to be cool to be in prison. Again, I have only seen people do this when they’re joking about it. Though if used seriously, I get the impression that it’s meant to be more ‘so cool, man’ with some reverence, than an enthusiastic ‘wow! cool beans’; but there we go.

There we are, in a nutshell. Obviously I am no expert and there are regional variations – the South is more keen on talking with their hands, it seems – but now you know how to read the important messages hiding in Italy’s hands.

Just don’t call anyone fennel and flick your ear at them.