Italians are masters of non-verbal communication: they say more with the body than with the mouth.
For evidence of this, just watch Luca Vullo’s 2017 documentary “La voce del corpo” (“The Voice of the Body”), an award-winning look at the range of non-verbal communication that adds so much depth to the Italian language.
More specifically, Italians often use their hands to accentuate what they’re saying.
And when people say Italians talk with their hands, they’re not kidding: A New York Times article determined that Italians use an average of 250 hand gestures to speak—every day! And honestly, that may be a light assessment.
Using the proper body language and hand gestures will elevate your Italian language skills and infuse your words with even more meaning.
Don’t believe it? Consider the delightful barbershop scene in the blockbuster movie “Eat, Pray, Love.” The Italians in this clip explain to the American woman played by Julia Roberts that speaking Italian is more than using words.
The language must be spoken with i gesti (the gestures), too.
So let’s decipher some gestures and speak Italian body language!
Why Do Italians Talk with Their Hands?
How did this phenomenon come about?
That’s a question that no one can really answer, although there’s more than one theory of how body language and hand gestures originated.
Some attribute the expressive body language back to the ancient Greeks.
Others believe that the language of Italian gestures came out of necessity, as an influx of immigrants from across the globe forced the nation to adapt their communication methods.
Italian Carlo Aurucci explains this view and demonstrates a number of gestures in his enchanting video clip, including many of those described below. (He does an especially charming temple tap!) Beware, though: He includes a couple of naughty expressions!
Regardless of its origin, Italian body language is still going strong!
The Basics of Italian Body Language and Hand Gestures
There are a few things you should know before you try your hand at gestures. (See what I did there?)
- Each gesture has a definite meaning. There may be small differences but all gestures are, in fact, different—and that means it’s probably safest to stick to the body language you’re sure of so you don’t inadvertently insult someone!
- Italian body language and hand gestures are used to place emphasis on a spoken conversation. Think of it like putting text in bold or underlining a pertinent fact.
- In addition to adding emphasis, Italians also use body language to tell stories, ask questions, provide explanations and express emotions (like showing love or anger and everything in between).
Need a bit of proof? Just watch two men “chatting” in one of Italy’s busy piazzas. Even without sound, it’s easy to follow their conversation because their communication skills go way beyond the verbal.
Before you check out our list, take a crash course in Italian hand gestures with this little rap. I can’t guarantee you won’t have an earworm when you’re done watching (I know I did!) but it sets down the basics with a great beat and lots of laughs!
To see even more Italian gestures in action, I recommend that you watch authentic videos like the ones on FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Speak Italian Body Language Fluently with 12 Essential Gestures
Meaning: Your place or mine?
When a man mimes knocking on a door in the air in front of his face, it’s an invitation for a casual romantic encounter.
So if you’re in a club and a hunk from Rome smiles, knocks and wiggles his eyebrows, you know he’s asking if you’re up for an evening of passion.
Need to see that one? Take a peek at a video from CNN, where you’ll see air knocking and a few other gestures—including the next one on our list as well as the infamous grattata (scratch)!
Le Corna (The Horns)
Meaning: Keep the jinx away.
To ward off bad luck in true Italian form, lift the pinky and index finger of one or both hands and point downward.
Just gesture toward your feet—nearby Italians will all realize you’re trying to keep a jinx at bay!
Meaning: Ward off evil!
When an Italian man does a scratching gesture near his nether regions, it doesn’t generally mean he’s itchy. (Although, to be honest, who can ever know that for sure except the man himself?)
But if you’re in Italy when you see a man perform the scratch, it’s an all-purpose way to ward off evil or bad luck. It’s just a superstitious way of keeping his life—and those he loves—safe and problem-free.
If one of his kids has a cough? He scratches.
If he hears his mother-in-law is considering spending a month with the family? He scratches.
Tapping the Two Pointer Fingers
Meaning: There’s a partnership.
The two pointer fingers can tell all sorts of stories—especially when they’re tapping each other!
Holding the hands in front of the body, either level or with the fingertips pointing to the floor, tap the sides of the pointer fingers together.
This is a clear-cut signal that two people are up to no good together and there’s some sort of collusion between them.
In other words, “Sono soci” (“They are partners”)!
Meaning: Pay attention.
If you want to tell someone to pay attention or be observant, use a fingertip to tug your lower eyelid down a bit. (Not hard—just a little.)
It’ll be enough to make whoever you’re talking to stand up and take notice!
Forming an X Across the Lips
Meaning: My lips are sealed.
To signify you’ll keep mum about something, cross your lips with two fingers.
Making an X gesture means “I’m silent on the matter. I’m not saying a thing!”
Finger Over the Lips
Meaning: Silenzio! (Be quiet!)
This one’s universally understood and used outside of Italy but honestly, no discussion on Italian body language should leave this one out.
Why? Because it’s used all over and in particular in one place most tourists visit on their Italian adventures!
Inside the Sistine Chapel men in dark suits walk around all day long frowning at noisy patrons and using this well-known gesture. If the noise level gets too high in the hallowed chapel, they follow the gesture with a stern, “Silenzio!”
It’s an experience no visitor to the Roman attraction will ever forget!
The Chin Scrape
Meaning: I don’t care.
Graze the fingertips on the underside of your chin and brush them away from your body for a classic way to say “Non me fregga.” (“I don’t care.”)
English speakers might feel that this has a rude connotation, but this Italian speaker explains that it really does just mean “I don’t care!”
He and his friends also explain a few other gestures including the “they-are-partners” finger tap and the cheek poke.
Meaning: What are you talking about? / What do you want?
Two expressions in one Italian gesture!
To pull this one off, touch the tips of one hand’s fingers together and wiggle your hand in the air. Your fingertips should face the sky.
When someone hits you with this non-verbal expression, the person doing the gesturing expects an explanation. And if you don’t speak fast enough, the gesture might be repeated.
It’s common in everyday life but totally front and center in Italian sports!
Meaning: Delizioso! (Delicious!)
This is one gesture that’s sweet and used by every age group, from children to the elderly!
Simply poke the tip of your index finger into either cheek to indicate that something is especially delicious.
Meaning: Ciao! (Goodbye!)
To non-verbally indicate you’ll see someone later or just say goodbye, spin your index finger in the air in a circle.
Then, smile and leave—it’s that easy!
Meaning: You’re crazy!
Tap the side of your head at the temple with one finger to indicate that you think the person you’re talking with (or someone nearby) is crazy.
The Italian language is beautiful to hear—and watch. There are lots of innuendos and layers of meaning, and so much to understand, both verbally and non-verbally.
These Dolce and Gabbana male models show off a few key gestures that underscore the fact that it’s a charming language—however it’s delivered.
Even if you don’t understand every bit of Italian body language or each hand gesture, you can enhance your language skills by adopting a few of these for your own use.
And elevating your language skills by using your body?
That’s using your head!