When foreign people think about Italians one of the first characteristic they associate with them is their typical attitude to use gestures while talking. This attitude is considered quintessentially Italian like pasta, pizza, a cup of Espresso or a red Ferrari. But why do Italians use gestures so much?
This topic is very often seen with a lot of interest by other nationalities. In 2013 the New York Times dedicated a whole article to the Italian gestures, together with an animated graph explaining the most common of them and their meaning. Understanding what each gesture means can be useful in order to avoid the wrong “expression” while having a conversation with an Italian. However, to consider the New York Times article as a simple guide to communicate better during a holiday in Italy would be too simple, as the debate involved experts from different fields like the psychologist Isabella Poggi, who listed 250 different gestures with their corresponding meanings. Some ideas have been developed regarding this particular attitude. One of them is that this attitude can be associated with the fact that Italian people are more theatrical and histrionic than, for example, the Scandinavians and for this reason they emphasize what they are saying by using their hands. This can be true in a way but it does not explain completely the matter. Why are gestures less associated to other nationalities considered theatrical as well, like for example the Spanish? The explanation can also be historical and it has been stated that this attitude started between the XIV and the XIX centuries, when Italy was divided between the domination of the Spanish, the Austrian and the French and the use of gestures was essential to overcome language differences. Andrea De Jorio, an archaeologist who lived in the XIX century, made also an association between the gestures used by the Italians and some ancient Greek paintings found in the area of Naples, stating that this attitude has existed in Italy since that period.
It is impossible to find a definitive explanation of why this alternative form of communication is used in Italy more than in other countries and it is also true that Italian people themselves have different reactions when the topic comes out: some of them find it funny, some others consider the attention given by foreigners to the movement of their hands like an annoying stereotype. As an Italian, I can definitely say that we use gestures all the time while talking as if it is the most natural thing in the world. The suggestion for not Italian people is to avoid using them without knowing the meaning, as it could create some misunderstandings!
By Mattia Grimaldi