When "OK" is not OK
Understanding Italian gestures
Italians talk with their hands even when their hands should be doing other, more important things, like (a) steering your scooter, and (b) hanging on to your friend who isn't steering very well.Italians are famously fond of gesticulating, but you should be very careful using any gestures. No single aspect of communication seems to have such diverse meanings and interpretations across different cultures.
With a few exceptions, polite—or at least innocuous—words in one language rarely just happen to translate into something unimaginably offensive in another.
Gestures, however, are another matter entirely.
Note that, on this page, I'll also cover a few gestures that are offensive not to Italians but to people from another culture who you are likely to run into to in Italy, because I wouldn't want you to go around making gestures that would cause a passing, say, British tourist to smack you.
(Warning: I will be using crude and offensive language on this page, but this is only so I can be as accurate as possible in letting you know precisely what a particular gesture means—the relative "weight" of its offensiveness, as it were.)
How to be (inadvertently) incredibly rude without even opening your mouth
Never, ever hold out just your forefinger and pinkie raised to make "horns" (or the "I love you" gesture from American Sign Language).
Depending on how you hold your hand, and where you are in Italy, you're either calling someone a cuckold, or are casting the Evil Eye on someone or warding against it—which by implication insults the people around you, since you are indicating that you believe they are casting the Evil Eye at you. (Note: this holds across most Mediterranean cultures)
The two-fingered "V" for victory symbol is fine palms-out. If you make it with you palm facing toward you, you'll offend any Brit—it's their version of "giving someone the finger."
The thumb-and-forefinger-circle that means "OK!" to you means "Up yours!" or "You're an asshole!" in some cultures (especially when held upside down).
Common gestures that will result in confusion, but not offense
Recommended books on the subject
• Gestures: The Do's and Taboos of Body Language Around the World by Roger E. Axtell
• Multicultural Manners: Essential Rules of Etiquette for the 21st Century by Norine Dresser
• Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries by Terri Morrison
In most cases, of course, your gestures won't mistakenly be offensive; they'll simply be misconstrued. When holding up their fingers to count, most Italians start with the thumb for "one." Holding up just your forefinger means "wait a sec." You may be trying to order one beer; they'll think you aren't ready yet.
An Italian gesturing "come here" looks like they're shooing you away. People waving good-bye in Italy hold their hand out, palm facing up, and repeatedly slap all four fingers as a group toward themselves; to an American, that means "come here."
Confused? You should be. There are whole books on this subject (see sidebar). Gestures are an integral part of communicating in Italy, especially the south, but until you learn the Italian body language, it might be best just to keep your hands to yourself.
Body Language—When Is Close Too Close?
Italians are pretty touchy-feely.Proximity is a relative thing.
In northern Europe, especially England, people require a larger sphere of personal space than most Americans do and are rather adverse to physical contact. Dear old friends will rarely greet one another with anything more than a firm handshake and warm smile.
When you get to Sicily, though, total strangers will be throwing their arms around you and greeting you with a wet kiss on each cheek.
Of course, those are both stereotypes, but ones that often hold true. The farther south you go, the more people touch.
Manly, macho Italian men will often link elbows to promenade down the street. They will just as often throw their arms across each other's shoulders, or even wrap their arms around a buddy's waist, while walking. Teenage boys, oozing hormones and unnecessary aftershave, will zoom up on their scooters and greet their pals with that double cheek peck so beloved of Hollywood types.
They probably aren't gay, effeminate, or even metrosexual. (In fact, most Mediterranean men are about as heterosexual as is humanly possible; their blood is 90% testosterone.) That’s just the way Italian culture is. Men touch.
As always, be observant and let the locals be your guide as to how to act, when to be politely standoffish, when it's acceptable to sling an arm around someone's shoulders and plant a big, wet, frencher on them (note: only if you know them very, very well or are very, very drunk).
Tips & links
Useful links & resources
PHONES & INTERNET
Cellphone/Smart Phone/Sat phone rentals: Cellularabroad.com, Mobal.com
WiFi portable hotspot rentals: Cellularabroad.com
WiFi hotspot finders:Wififreespot.com
Calling cards: Speedypin.com
Phrase books: Barnesandnoble.com
Online translators: translate.google.com
Electronic translators: Magellans.com
Translator apps: World Nomads
, 24/7 Tutor
, Lonely Planet
, Odyssey Translator
Language learning: Barnesandnoble.com
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