- -  Day # 188  + +

EU > Italy > Palermo

Talking hands

Palermo, IT (View on map)

Over the last few days, I have made some comparisons between the Finns and the Italians and I think there will be more of those over the days to come. Today, I am writing about the Italian way of communicating, which makes a nice contrast with the monotonous and seemingly indifferent way of talking that the Finns are used to. Seeing Italian people converse in the streets is like going to an open-air theatre, and Sicilians seem to be top of the bill when it comes to body language.

Juliana (27):

`Moving your hands too wildly when you speak will make people think you`re not very clever`
According to a book I read earlier today, sign language developed in Sicily as a way for locals to communicate without the rulers of their province knowing what they were talking about. It may well be an urban legend, but apparently, people at the time could even talk without using any words at all.

Social status
Regardless of how much truth resides in that theory, Juliana (27, photo) tells me that the gestures nowadays serve mostly to emphasise spoken words rather than replace them: `Looking at hand gestures is a good way of determining somebody`s social background. When not used at all, gestures may give people a rather stiff, unfriendly or indifferent appearance. When used in proportion, they help people understand each other in a natural way. Sicilians are born with their gestures. We would have a hard time without them, but people who gesticulate too wildly are thought of as badly educated. Well-educated and articulate people use body language in a stylish and modest way.`

Giuseppe (29) confirms that he adapts his way of talking in accordance with the social context. `When I`m at work, I try not to rely on gestures too much. In a professional setting, it`s not appropriate to express yourself too wildly. Gestures express emotions and too much of that is not suitable under all circumstances. In the family, with friends or at the market, that`s when gestures come in handy. Or whenever you end up in a car accident.

Gestures help you express yourself, and give extra strength to spoken words. They come natural most of the time, but in the rare case somebody`s gestures don`t coincide with the words he/she speaks, I would be likely to rely on the gestures more than the words.` As an example, Giuseppe tells me that the Sicilian way of saying no is by moving the head far up, then slowly down: `It`s almost like nodding yes, but it does mean no. And if I say yes but I nod `no`, you can forget about my spoken yes. The answer to your question will be a definite `no`.

Integrated communication
According to Santina (22), gestures are an integrated part of communication. `They help you decide whether or not you can trust a person. At the same time, they can be used as camouflage or for gossip when you are in groups.` It`s quite easy for Sicilians to recognise non-locals by their static way of communicating. According to Fabricio (28), people identified as non-locals will be less likely to negotiate better prices at the market. Visitors may also fall victim to jokes without finding out, in a way similar to how waiters in Paris tend to make fun of clients who don`t speak French.

Most gestures will involve the one hand, but some of them imperatively need both. Problems arise when people talk on the phone. Handsfree kits would help a great deal, but most people manage to do without. For outsiders, it may look rather clumsy to see an Italian making wild gestures when he is on the phone. As it seems, Italians couldn`t care less. Mouth and hands become one when it comes to communicating: whether in real life or on the phone.

Shelves full of books have been written about the different expressions and I do not feel like describing them all here. I do want to list some applications of sign language that complement the spoken word ? just to provide an impression of the many options to choose from. For example: it doesn`t take many sign language courses to find out how to express that somebody is crazy, ignorant, innocent, unreliable, a thief, dead, arrogant, hungry, continuously drunk, in prison, a lucky bastard, gay, flirting with somebody, getting cheated on, taking advantage of something, related to somebody or not getting along with somebody.

Something can be expensive, dangerous, a long time ago, unimportant, not urgent or cos? cos?: nothing special. There are also simple mimic expressions for common instructions like `shut up`, `let`s keep this secret`, `get lost`, `let`s get out of here`, `let`s go for a coffee`, `cut it short`, `get to the point` or `better be careful`. Emotions that allow for easy translation in sign language include indifference, stupefaction, disgrace, admiration and reluctance to carry out an instruction.

On top of all that, Italians may visually wish one another to get his/her face smashed, his/her eyes extorted or him/herself fucked. In the end, gestures and spoken language are no more than different means to the same end: getting a message across as clearly as possible.

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