Friday, November 16


Yes. My name is Claudia and I talk with my hands- all the time. I admit it, I cannot talk well without my hands. I'm not alone, of course- I don't know any Italians who do not talk with their hands. I remember once we dared my mom to talk without her hands- she sat on them and actually couldn't get her thoughts out!

We need our hands to punctuate and give what we are saying that little extra meaning that our simple words cannot. I put my cell phone on speaker a lot since my hand surgery because my hand cramps up. It is very handy (ha, ha) because I can gesticulate with both hands while I am on the phone, even though the effect is lost on the listener who cannot enjoy my gestures. And trust me, people say I talk fast, but I can move my hands just as quickly. And when I get angry, my hands and arms actually flail around.

Of course, being an Italian has its dangers when it comes to gesticulation. I once put my hand through a picture frame hanging on the wall in college when I was dramatically (of course) illustrating a point to a sorority sister. The glass went flying everywhere. My sorority sister ducked and I somehow managed to not slice my hand. Thank God- how would I have spoken? One can also get injured standing too close to an Italian speaking animatedly- a scratch or a poke in the face, for example.

Standing front of teenagers all day long means that I find out things about myself that I wasn't really aware of. Once a student asked me why I stood in third (ballet) position, which I did not realize I did when I taught. More than once, and in fact, several times a year, some student who is not paying attention to my lesson asks me why I use my hands when I talk. My answer is simple: "I'm Italian." They dared me to try to teach without using my hands, just like my sister and I did to my mom. Impossible. I made it through about 5 words and then gave up.

I think Italians have to use their hands because the volume when we are all together gets to such high levels that sometimes the person across from us needs some help to understand because he can't actually HEAR.

Don't confuse what I am saying with actual meaningful gestures that Italians use to convey such phrases as the brusque wave of the hand under the chin for "Me ne frego." (I don't give a damn) or the clasped hands, look to the heavens "Ayudame" (help me) gesture which I do frequently in class. (Note: "Ayudame" was the first Italian "word" I ever said when I was a little kid- I got stuck in the toilet and called for help. But that's another story)

Once when friends from Italy came over we all went out to dinner. I was a teenager at the time and Paolo, one of our friend's sons, was about 18. Everyone ordered wine at dinner and so did he. My dad told him he couldn't. He did not understand because they drink wine all the time in Italy, even at his age. He launched into a little description of when he and his friends go out to the club:
"But in Italy, we go to the club (points), we eat a little (pretends to put food in his mouth), we dance a little (does a little dance), we drink a little (takes an imaginary drink), we don't have these rules (frustrated gestures). My family and I recall this fondly usually whenever someone says "eat a little" and we still imitate Paolo twenty-something years later.

My gestures aren't really sign language, per se. They are just disconnected movements that sometimes relate to what I am saying and involve a lot of waving, pointing and jabbing. Think of a maestro on crack.

No other culture has earned the hand-speak reputation quite like Italians. Sure, some other countries gesticulate, but the constant and sometimes wild gesticulations of an Italian trying to make a point are pretty much incomparable. We don't get a prize or anything but it's fun to watch us.

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