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Gestures, Body Language and their Meanings in Different Countries

Body language can lead to embarrassing situations when used in contexts where those "codes" are not understood

Italian Gestures.

Early humans communicated with one another with gestures. As their brain developed words and language ensured. However, gestures have always accompanied language to some extent

The movements of gestures are more spontaneous and sincere than words and they can express emotions better than spoken language. The problem comes when people uses gestures in a different county because each language is intertwined with its own culture and together they evolve and influence each other. Therfore, body language can lead to embarrassing situations when used in contexts where those “codes” are not understood.

Early humans communicated with one another with gestures. As their brain developed words and language ensured. However, gestures have always accompanied language to some extent.

The effective use of the hands with or without the use of words is a very old practice. It was developed and systematized by the Greeks and by the Romans as a method of international communication, a true art (the art of mime). In those times, Italian travelling theaters were much appreciated across Europe. Thanks to gestures, their art could be understood everywhere they went. The general public (meant as the upper class elite, of course) attributed a common meaning to those gestures all over Europe.

In 1644  John Bulwer pubished the book “Chirologia: or the Natural Language of the Hand AND Chironomia: or the Art of Manual Rhetoric” in which they illustrated and explained the language of the hands, how people dressed and moved on stage. Since then, the “chironomia” continued to evolve for centuries. In 1806 Gilbert Austin, a well-known British author, wrote a book contains a summary of the theories of chironomia, the art of using gestures Chironomia; or, A treatise on rhetorical delivery”. In the first part of the book, Austin traces the study of the art of delivery from the classical era to the 18th century. The second part of the book is devoted to a description of the notation system Austin designed to teach students of rhetoric the management of gesture and voice.

Non-verbal language is very complex and can express what one thinks; it states what people are unconsciously communicating when they are talking by sending more direct and spontaneous messages than words. Non-verbal language includes tone of voice, eye contact, facial expression, posture, proximity, and hand gestures. It is the most primitive form of communication ever recorded by humans and it is different from one culture to another. All cultures use gestures, and although the Italians are best known for the use of their hands other cultures also project messages and emotions of all kinds with the use of their hands and their body language.

People who understand non-verbal language are able to discover others’s most intimate secrets. In fact, people’s gestures are not make randomly but they are linked to their emotional states. Although Italians are using gestures with words to strengthen their messages it does not always help people from different cultures understand their conversation, and sometimes their gestures can send the wrong message. The meanings of non-verbal language can change from one culture to another as much as to have the opposite connotation. For example, in some countries, pointing a finger at a person is considered an insult, which is why in the U.S. we tell children “don’t point.” While in Italy pointing is used to indicate a direction.

This video shows you some of Italian and Persian gestures:

Another example of not verbal language is the two fingers positioned as a “V sign to indicate peace or victory in the USA.  It became popular in 1960, during the Vietnam War, as symbol of peace. But in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and United Kingdom, the “V sign”, with the palm turned toward oneself, with the index and middle finger raised and parted while the other fingers are clenched, is an insult similar to the middle finger in the USA. Needless to say, these cultural differences can lead to serious misunderstandings. When it comes to Italians and their body language, we can mention that in Italy it is normal to kiss on both cheeks to welcome each other, while in other countries this gesture is seen as exaggerated. In the U.S., people kiss on one cheek, and this brings an inconvenience to Italians arriving in America and to Americans who are visiting relatives in Italy. In oriental cultures, it is disrespectful to touch or get too close to a person. Instead, in the Italian culture, some people touch others with their finger or hand during a conversation to attract attention, and they don’t take into consideration that maybe the other person is uncomfortable if is touched by others.  Conversely, Italians tend to touch the people they are talking to with light gestures of their hands or fingers to attract attention. In doing so, they may not realize that others are uncomfortable with this. 

This video explains the most popular Italian hand gestures.

Italians do not use gestures more than others, but with Italy being a huge bustle of ethnic groups with different languages and diversity there was the need to use gestures. Gesticulations were also used to communicate between Italians who used different dialects, which is why gestures originate mostly in Italy. For example, up to 60 years ago, a person who lived in Milan had trouble understanding a person who lived in Sicily. Italian regions did not begin to join the rest of the country linguistically until after 1960, with the introduction of television in Italian homes. With T.V., all Italians began to hear the same language, and the Italian language unified the country linguistically. Also at that time a large group of people immigrated from the South to the North, and initially, Italians incorporated more gestures in their dialogues to communicate with one another. This need was also felt in towns near the sea, where for commercial or for geographical reasons, people who spoke different languages ​​had to use gestures to be understood.

People, who live near the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, in particular the Neapolitans from Napoli, are more expressive with both words​​ and gestures. In fact, Naples, a city at the center of the Mediterranean coast has developed this technique of communication more than any other place in Italy. For the Neapolitans who had always been in contact with people of the Mediterranean, gestures became an innate ability, and a true art of communication. Napoli always had excellent artists of theater, cinema and music. People, who live near the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, in particular the Neapolitans from Napoli, are more expressive with both words​​ and gestures. In fact, Naples, a city at the center of the Mediterranean coast has developed this technique of communication more than any other place in Italy. For the Neapolitans who had always been in contact with people of the Mediterranean, gestures became an innate ability, and a true art of communication. Napoli always had excellent artists of theater, cinema and music.

The most typical gestures that Italians use while they are talking:

In conclusion, the gestures of the Italians are wider and more open, and in moving their hands and arms they take up other people’s personal space. This explains the physical contact of some Italians during their conversations.

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