Question: Where do you stab an Italian if you want to kill him?
Answer: His hands.
This is my buddy Angelo. He is one of the old men who likes to bug me at the caffe where I write. Here, he’s giving me culinary advice: This is how you make ragu. This is how you make lasagna. For the Italian, words are simply not enough.
Italians are renowned worldwide for being wildly gesticulatory, and I’m here to tell you that it’s no myth. I once asked a couple of friends to sit on their hands for five minutes and try talking to me; they made it, but barely. Italians move their hands when they talk, when they argue, and even when they drive:
My friends, Laura and Viktoria, talking about how Google Maps rocks.
Do they even move their hands when they talk in their sleep? Someday I hope to be able to tell you. But for now, I leave you with a collection of nine classic Italian hand gestures for you to learn.
One of the fascinating things about Italian hand gestures is that all of them have meanings but some of the most important ones don’t even have names. I can’t tell you how many people I interviewed trying to get a simple name for this gesture – the gesture that might be the most prevalent of all Italian hand signals. How do you make it? Touch your thumb to your fingertips and jerk your hand back and forth, towards and away from you. Use one hand. Use the other hand. Use both at once! This gesture is absolutely inescapable in Italy, and – once you learn how to use it – utterly addictive. One friend tells me it means “What do you want?” Another tells me it means “What are you looking at?” Another one tells me it means “What are you talking about?” While it might be hard to get a group of Italians to agree on its precise definition, the one thing they can agree on is that you use it when you’re expressing incredulity. What? Who asked you? Can you believe that crap? Well, what do you want me to do about it? Excuse me, but did you pick up the movie tickets or not? Well, then what the hell are we doing standing around here? Note: This gesture is so prevalent that sometimes it might even serve as the default hand gesture, used when all others are exhausted and the speaker simply needs something to do with their hands.
Per Favooooooooooore (pleeeeeeeeeease)
Another gesture that defies strict definition, this gesture – two hands clasped in prayer, moved up and down like a dog’s wagging tail – is used when one wants to add emphasis to a complaint. Hurry up! Listen to me. Help me deal with these people. Let’s go already. Can we stop talking about this, please?
No bones about it, this gesture – beloved by babies and adults alike – means “yummy.” Stick a finger in your cheek and twist. Especially useful if your mouth is full and an anxious grandmother is asking you if you like the food.
Che Culo! (What an A**!)
“What an a**” is the literal translation, but this gesture – depending on context – is used to mean “man, talk about luck” or “watch yourself, or I’ll smack your a** so hard it’ll be big like this!.” Here’s hoping you never have to experience the negative meaning of this gesture.
è Scaltro (He or she is clever)
Also, “è dritto (he or she is straight),” in the sense of “Keep an eye on that one; they’re clever and might get the best of you.” Drag your thumb down your cheek and wink; no one will get the best of anyone.
In the sense of “This bores me” and “basta!” (enough!). Let’s move on. Oh god, this again. Put your hands at chest level, splay your fingers out, and shake. Booooooooored of this!
Versa dell’altro (refill, please)
Hit me with some more of that chianti, kthxbye. A gesture for all ages and seasons.
Stai Attento (Be Careful)
Similar to è dritto, this gesture – dragging down your lower eyelid with your index finger – warns you to keep an eye out for danger, physical and emotional.
I’m afraid no video or photo can accompany this final gesture because we’re a family site here, folks, but I can let you in on this exclusively male Italian method of warding off bad luck. In English-speaking countries, we knock on wood to ward off hypothetical misfortune, but Italian males give their boy parts a healthy scratch.
I only recently discovered this gesture; my puritanical American sensibilities still haven’t quite gotten over it. And because I’m the way I am, I have to keep seeing it to believe it. Hey, Roberto. The other day, I was reading the obituaries and saw that someone with your name had died. SCRATCH. Yeah, have a great time sailing to the island, guys… if the ship doesn’t sink. SCRATCH. With just one well-timed bad juju-inviting phrase, I can make an Italian male touch his pants. I’ve never felt so powerful in my life.
What are your favorite Italian hand gestures?