RESEARCHED! - Why Italy speaks with its hands

When speaking, full body effort is required in Italy. No other country in the world is so famous for its gestures. Italians are professionals in non-verbal communication. This is what science says about it...

There are two scientifically researched theories:

  • Gestures as a secret language: For several centuries, Italy was occupied by foreign rulers. With gestures, the locals were able to communicate secretly.
  • Attention: Especially in the south of Italy, settlement used to be so tight that people had to come up with something to get - and keep - their voices heard.

Hollywood star Antony Quinn († 2001)



"Italian is a sign language whose intelligibility is challenged by words".

Photo: Eve Arnold (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Every average conversation in Italy resembles an operetta drama. The bodies speak along parallel to the mouth: Looks and grimaces, changes in pitch and volume, the hands, the arms, the fingers. Such conversations, or rather performances, are pure life. (If you've never seen it live, wait and see...).

focused young woman having video call on netbook in modern workspace
Talking without hands is virtually impossible
Photo by SHVETS production on Pexels.com

While most strangers have inhibitions about talking at the top of their lungs, gestures are a second mother tongue for people from Italy: gestures have their own meaning. They are more than an accent.

Look at an Italian in the bar ordering an espresso - without saying a single word (a little index finger, a little wrist twist with up-and-down movement, a little head nod). 

The Italian warmth that is praised worldwide also has to do with gestures. If you gesticulate when you speak, you appear open and convey sympathy and feeling. A conversation with a petrified face, closed arms, monotonous volume - (almost) unimaginable in Italy.

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So why do people talk with so much passion?
collage of portraits of cheerful woman
It is always spoken with passion
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Theory 1: Gestures as a secret language

According to this theory, the strong gestures can be traced back to the time of the foreign colonisation of Italy. Over the centuries, Italians have developed gestures as a kind of alternative form of communication - a kind of secret language towards their Austrian, French and Spanish feudal lords. 

woman in blue denim jacket using a laptop
Why just say it when you can also show something
Photo by Matilda Wormwood on Pexels.com

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Theory 2: Gestures for attention

According to a study by the University of Rome, there are at least 250 Italian gestures. Professor Isabella Poggi has researched the topic in the field of psychology. According to her, gesticulating goes back to the time of the Greek colonisation of the South.

city people art street
A little chat in the snack bar - with gestures
Photo by Polina Kholodova on Pexels.com

In those days, cities were so narrow and densely populated that you had to somehow stand out in the mass of people. If your fellow human being was to listen intently, you had to draw attention to yourself. 

By the way: The Italian director Luca Vollu (documentary film "La voce del corpo", the language of the body) now even offers workshops on gesture language at English universities. The demand is said to be huge. 

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written by Annie Kayser, first published 7.3.22

Cover: Wavebreakmedia/Getty Images via canva.com

Sources: NEW YORK TIMES online - Rachel Donadio: When Italians talk, they talk with hands and fingers; ZEIT/Adesso online - By Sara Cavallari: Understanding Italian gestures; Luca Vullo - lucavullo.com

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