Italian people are proverbially known for using their hands a lot while speaking or when they need to communicate without words. Even those amongst us who don’t gesticulate so much are anyway able to decode Italian gestures.

Such a habit is often despised and mocked by some people from other cultures. I heard remarks like: “Ah, les italiens… ils parlent avec leurs mains!” or “Why are Italians so direct, and why can’t they stand still?”

I am not taking offense at those comments, since I believe that most cultural shocks have good reasons behind them, at least in the beginning. But, besides my respect for different points of view, I want to offer some food for thought by explaining why my country has such a codified non-verbal language. 

Italy as a national reality is extremely recent in comparison to other countries (the unification process started only in 1861). Before that, the foreign occupations and internal divisions were countless. Intellectuals and clergy could resort to Latin as a universal language, but what about the populace and bourgeoisie? How to get across dialects and languages? How to establish a contact for the sake of commerce and how to communicate without running the risk of being understood too clearly by foreign rulers? Expressive gestures, of course!
So, this seem to be the first reason why Italians became so skilled at body language: the need to find a silent yet effective lingua franca.

Another reason why gestures are such a big part of Italian culture is the local and international fame of the Commedia dell’Arte. That’s an ancient form of theatre (whose golden age lasted from 16th to 18th century) marked by improvisation based on a vague script called “canovaccio”. The protagonists of such comedies were called “maschere” (since the actors wore masks and costumes that are still part of today’s Carnival), and each one of them had well defined characteristics and functions. If you ever watched theatrical plays with characters such as Arlecchino (Harlequin) or Pulcinella, you will know that Commedia dell’Arte’s acting involves a lot of gestures, which are even more important than dialogues. Can you imagine how good those actors’ mime skills should have been, if they conquered foreigners’ hearts even without their words being fully understood?

Before I leave you wondering about the boundless power of body language, let me recommend you a video. That’s a performance by the great Italian actor Dario Fo, who received the Nobel prize for bringing the art of grammelot to its highest level. In this case, he’s impersonating (since minute 2:39) an archetype of Commedia dell’Arte called Zanni, who’s a poor, starving commoner who fantasizes about cooking and eating any creature alive, even himself.  
Here’s the link, and I bet you’ll be able to understand everything he’s communicating with his remarkable performance, despite his words mimic Lombard dialect(s) and have no precise conceptual content.

So, what do you think? Are Italian gestures ridiculous nonsense or genius? Do you believe there is something to learn from our (even excessively) demonstrative body language? I hope you found the subject to be stimulating of further reflections.

Italian Translation Here