Italian hand gestures are a fascinating aspect of the Italian language.
Italy is known all over the world for a lot of things, for example:
- Good food
- Beautiful places
- Awesome historic cities
- Art and design
- Cars and motorbikes and…
- Noisy and gesticulating people!
No matter what you have heard, let an expert tell you the truth: yes, we Italians are very noisy and we gesticulate a lot!
I know for sure that this feature characterizes and distinguishes us all over the world, and often people from other countries find it very funny!
One of the most identifiable characteristics of Italian, setting it apart in the world of languages, is its unique use of hand gestures. Everyone recognizes this distinctive trait from Italian culture, even if our use of gesticulation is typically reduced to a simplified folk stereotype.
My journey across continents has allowed me to understand how we Italians are seen by other cultures, which led to a profound self-analysis of our ability to communicate. As you might expect, there was also a real exchange of cultures during the trip — as I provided useful information about Italian to others, I learned how body language is used in other cultures, ultimately giving me a deeper understanding of different customs and traditions. The biggest misconception about Italian gestures is that they illustrate words like charades, but most are actually an abstracted code.
In fact, exaggerating gestures is also a way to memorize new words.
We Italians like to say that a gesture is worth a thousand words.
In other words, an Italian hand gesture is worth a thousand Italian words.
Surprisingly, we don’t actually have a gesture that says that, but we do for almost everything else.
When it comes to body language, we simply rule.
As we talk, our hands fly in the air making unmistakable signs, our faces twist into funny expressions.
These make up a dictionary all of their own, albeit one that’s frequently rude and, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, slightly obsessed with testicles.
Italians, with their innate passion for communicating, have never let words get in the way. Italian hands are rarely still.
In Italy, the shrug of a shoulder, the flip of a wrist or the lift of an eyebrow says more than a sacco di parole (sack of words). Body language in Italy is the most important part of making your point.
Hand gestures are to Italian conversation what punctuation is to writing. Hands become exclamation points, periods, commas, question marks. Italian gestures are a huge part of what makes an Italian, well, an Italian!
Even before the law banned talking on cell phones while driving, Italians would pull over to the side of the road because they couldn’t drive and carry on a conversation. In the old days of telephone booths, Italians would step outside so they would have space to express themselves fully.
Whether you realize it or not, you are already somewhat fluent in Italian body language. Gestures used in other countries — such as holding up an index finger to speak or interrupt, putting a finger to the lips to request silence or scratching one’s head when befuddled — translate precisely into wordless Italian.
And you can always improvise. If something smells bad, you don’t have to say “che puzza!” Simply pinch your nose. If you’re hungry, pat your stomach. Easily explained. If you can’t hear what someone is saying, cup your ear.
Italian psychologist Prof. Isabella Poggi says that there are more than 250 different gestures in Italian chatting! That’s a lot of shaking hands!
In this study, several theories are taken in account to explain our propensity for hand gestures.
Some other even says that in overpopulated cities like Naples, gesture has become a “marketing factor”.
I have a different theory to add to the list, and it’s about dialect: every Italian can confirm you the countless amount of dialects in this country.
Even for an Italian, sometimes it’s really difficult to understand someone (like an elderly) who still speaks dialect.
Because of that, I think that we’ve embraced hand gestures a long time ago (and yes, they are indissoluble parts of our culture) to help ourselves to understand each other, when every relationship was made by people and face-to-face.
You, too, can pull out an Italian hand gesture next time you don’t understand.
Gestures partly come from the Italian love for dramatic and theatrical representations.
But they also partly originate from a long history of Italy being invaded by many other countries that imposed their languages, cultures and mannerisms.
This meant there were language barriers, so people had to come up with other ways of communicating.
But before we start:
Remember that gesticulating isn’t just about the hands; it’s also about facial expressions and posture.
So, stretch out your neck and shoulders, open your eyes, warm up your eyebrows, and get ready to move your hands like never before!
Note that to fully understand the meaning of an Italian hand gesture, you always need to pay attention to the face!
In this video, I’ll show you 31 common Italian hand gestures (yes, that’s me in the video).
Some are nice, some so-so, some are rude.
The safe ones are shown in the first part of the video.
For each Italian hand gesture, you find the explanation below.
These Italian hand gestures are generally safe to use.
They’re funny, cute, witty, but not aggressive or rude.
This is an old-style Italian hand gesture.
Bunch ten fingers together and lift them to the same height as the mouth. Then use hand to touch the lips.
English meaning: Excellent.
Sometimes, there can be true poetry behind a gesture, which is the case with the gesture used to communicate “perfetto!” (perfect). The thumb and index finger form a ring, with the other three fingers fanned out. The hand is then moved slowly across the chest as though gently dancing, accompanied by a facial expression portraying great satisfaction.
This Italian hand gesture is mostly used with children.
Put one index finger on the cheek.
English meaning: Delicious.
Extend the index finger and point it to one side of the head.
English meaning: Think twice.
Using your index finger, tugging at your bottom eyelid.
English meaning: Watch out!
There are Mafia overtones and it can be quite alarming when witnessed for the first time.
To be used carefully, particularly in Sicily.
You only have to bow your head and pull down a little the skin under your eye, with a crafty smile!
It means that you, the people you are talking to or someone else is clever, or has done something cunning and tricky.
It’s not an intelligent or righteous thing, it’s more about doing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time.
Clever, isn’t it?
This is Italian hand gesture doesn’t necessarily refer to spaghetti, but rather having a meal in general.
Index and middle finger imitate a fork picking up spaghetti and turn the elbow downwards.
English meaning: Eat spaghetti.
The “From Riches to Rags” gesture.
Place your hand with your palm facing downwards; then, as you speak and reach the subject of the conversation, flip your hand over so that your palm is now facing upwards.
When you want to show how a situation or person has drastically changed.
Some things are just the way they are. Embrace them!
With the palm facing inwards, flatten your fingers except thumb, after that then shake hand in an up and down movements by several times.
Even if you can think it’s rude to go away with a gesture, here it’s normal and it’s not considered rude at all (if you are speaking to a friend).
Very simple gesture: completely open hand (even the thumb) and outstretched arm pointing the topic of the discussion.
Even if it’s not a facepalm, the meaning is exactly the same:
“Oh my god, look at that stupid idiot…”
“Oh my god, what the *** is he doing?” (not with wonder)
…always with an exasperated tone.
It’s often accompanied by a long sigh and the other hand leaning against the side.
Some gestures are expressions of precise concepts that can be used to effectively replace speech. Think of the gesture for “non c’è niente” (there is nothing), in which one makes a “gun” gesture and rotates the wrist, paired with a sorrowful and dramatic facial expression.
With a shape similar to a gun and a circle movement on the index finger axis, this widely used gesture indicates that something is finished.
For example: “honey, where are my spaghetti?”
Reply: “Sorry, I think they are finished”
It’s also used to say that you don’t have something.
“Can I borrow your pen?”
“Sorry, I don’t have any pen”
Gestures don’t only express concepts — they can also be used to describe states of mind. For example, to ask if someone is feeling scared, it’s enough to simply turn your palms facing upwards and open and close all five fingers at the same time, as if to form an artichoke with the hand.
This Italian hand gesture is made by closing and opening quickly all the fingers like you are pinching something.
It’s used to ask with mockery if you are scared of a particular situation.
The meaning is that you are saying to your speaker that is a coward.
This gesture was made famous and widely used in our country by Carlo Lucarelli, a popular Italian tv host of crime and investigative programs.
During an episode of Blu Notte – Misteri Italiani (that tv show), he made this Italian hand gesture to underline a scary situation with an extremely serious face, but it resulted in an unintended funny scene, which was used by Italian comedian Fabio de Luigi to identify the character of Lucarelli.
I don’t know why, but for me, the Italian hand gesture signifying “stealing” is very creative. The four fingers (not including the thumb) are moved together harmoniously in the air, as if they were playing a virtual piano, while the person winks like they’re doing something they’re not supposed to be doing.
When you think something not quite right is going on; for example, if you think that someone is trying to trick you.
Spread your cheekbones as if you were forcing a smile, and stretch your lips so that they are almost non-visible. Aumm, aumm…
What’s important here is the perfect synchrony between the movement of the hand and the pronunciation of aumm, aumm.
When a situation is a bit too shady, or even illegal. Raise both your eyebrows as if you know what is actually going on.
When something really, really exasperates you, the God, shut my mouth gesture is perfect.
Hands open like in a prayer, and a bite on your lips, with your eyes to the sky.
A very evocative Italian hand gesture, often used with a strong groan of disapproval.
As the title explains, it’s used when something (or more easily someone) brings you to the point of no return, when you are literally FULL of a situation and can’t stand anything more.
The bite on the lips indicates that you are trying to take some “bad words” inside of you.
And the hands pray the Lord for some help.
Everything with an Italian hand gesture.
When we want to refrain from saying something we’ll later regret.
We can use this one to let another person know we are struggling to stay calm. We use it when something doesn’t go as planned or when someone does something wrong.
Italians are passionate people. They often express their aggressivity through hand gestures.
They’re shown in the second part of the video.
For this Italian hand gesture, teeth are chomped into a hand held horizontally at head height. The bitten hand is then used to make a chopping gesture in the air.
This might look as though it indicates hunger, but in fact, sends a message of impending punishment.
It stands for: “If I catch you you’re in deep trouble, I’ll hurt you.”
Mothers use it with restless kids making too much noise.
It’s also sometimes used by men eyeing up women they’d like to get their hands on, if only they could stop biting those hands.
Hit your forefinger or hand’s edge against your shown teeth.
It means “that’s not gonna happen”.
The most popular Italian hand gesture. And yet, one of the most aggressive.
Keep your fingers together, with tips touching and pointing upward. The arm is about a foot distance away from the body. Hands can move up and down at the wrist or be held.
English meaning: What do you mean/What do you want?
What the **** are you talking about?
You are saying stupid/false things
Who the *** are you?
…and other similar colorful expressions.
One of your friends is saying something totally silly? or trying to bullshit you? Using this hand gesture will clearly state that you ain’t buying any of it!. Or you can even use it to simply piss them off even if they are talking about astrophysics. This is one of my favorites! really effective and straight to the point. Don’t forget to use a proper face!
Put your hand open, except for the thumb, in front of your face and perpendicular to the nose. Then shake with quick&short circular movements.
It’s not only a NO, it’s a
“Are you mad? Completely forget about it!”
You should use this one only with friends.
It’s not considered rude, but it’s not also a very polite way to say a no 🙂
Go to hell (ma va!)
You can soften this Italian hand gesture by smiling. Else, it’s very rude.
This Italian hand gesture literally means “hard-headed”.
Knocking your fist on the table or the wall works, too.
Hand open face down under the chin and forward movement in the air.
It’s considered rude, because its meaning is simple and too direct:
“I don’t care.”
But, to be more precise, its correct translation should be:
“I completely don’t give a ****.”
The beauty of Italian hand gestures is also evident in how the countless different meanings can be constructed through the creative use of the hands. Repeatedly hitting the side of your right hand with the palm of your left hand, for example, means “Go away! Get out!” This same gesture can also mean “to cut loose” or “to jump ship.”
While this gesture involves a forearm held horizontally against the stomach, it’s neither a gesture of hunger or an invitation to lunch.
This Italian hand gesture means: “I can’t digest you.”
There’s a lot of swearing in Italian. Hand gestures can be a form of swearing, too.
They’re shown in the last part of the video.
This vulgar and threatening gesture, used to criticize someone for his actions as well as to communicate the statement “I can make you very ill!”, could certainly get him into trouble!
The literal meaning here is: “I’ll kick you so hard your buttocks will end up this far apart.”
It’s a fairly aggressive threat, so it’s probably best to seek butt-saving solutions — run if necessary.
It’s also true that this gesture can be used in a different context with another meaning: “Mi sono fatto un culo così” (roughly meaning “I worked my ass off”) to indicate how much effort you put into achieving a specific goal. However, in this case, you would also need to make a different facial expression to accompany the gesture. In either case, I don’t think any Italian would think about pizza if they saw this gesture!
Now, some serious swearing.
This is the Italian version of the middle finger (F*** you).
Put your hand on the middle of the other arm and bend that arm a little.
It’s called Umbrella because your arm take the shape of an old umbrella handle.
It’s maybe the rudest gesture of our repertory, and I suggest to avoid using it in almost any occasion, or your vacations in Italy can end badly.
Uffa che palle: Gimme a break.
Another Italian classic — so, inevitably, it involves genitals.
This Italian hand gesture literally means “My balls are getting this big out of boredom”.
Here the hands are held loosely in front of the body and shaken from the wrists. Rolling your eyes can help.
Optionally, the arms can be crossed.
It means “enough,” or “I’ve had it,” or “gimme a break” and symbolizes an imminent testicle explosion.
Italians use it dozens of times a day, just to stress a point.
Visitors can try it when they’re exasperated, but shouldn’t overdo it, otherwise they risk looking clumsy and even more obsessed by testicles than Italians.
Knocking the air is a proposition for sex.
There are a couple of gestures for women to be wary of when encountering macho Italian men.
Italians aren’t shy about the facts of life and so it’s not uncommon for men to come right out and say it, albeit in sign language.
If they hold their fist aloft and appear to knock the air, they’re asking for a one-night stand.
If they place their index fingers together, pointing toward you, they’re just asking you out.
In either case, whether it’s a “yes” or “no,” it’s best to be just as upfront in response.
This is the least classy gesture you can do, definitely.
Open your hands and shake them to indicate your lower parts.
The title suca means literally suck it up.
So… this gesture means what you are thinking.
But it’s more a mockery gesture than else.
It’s used when you have defeated your opponent at something, and you like to celebrate taunting him.
Or when someone tries to put you in a difficult situation and you overcome it with success.
Or, finally, when your opponent has failed something (like in sports) and you enjoy his misfortune.
Like a sir, indeed…
This is obviously only a small taste of the extraordinary world of nonverbal communication in Italian; I would recommend deepening your knowledge of what it means to be Italian in all of its facets and forms of communication, hand gestures included.
It’s really interesting to see how people from other cultures react so incredulously to explanations of our hand gestures. In effect, we are talking about an extraordinary language which traces its roots back to the primordial dawn of humanity.
Don’t worry, with a little bit of practice you will soon become a Jedi Master of Italian gestures.
The beauty of gestures lies in the fact that you don’t really need to speak or understand Italian to know what’s going on, so keep on practicing, and before you know it you’ll be able to show everyone how Italian you really are!
It’s also fun to associate gestures to common Italian phrases to memorize them more easily.
To expand your repertoire of expressions, check out my collection of Italian idioms, Italian sayings, Italian proverbs, Italian quotes, Italian songs or even Italian swear words, just for a laugh.