In a high-context culture such as Italy, facial expressions and body language are important ways of communicating information. Italians frequently communicate with each other with just a wink or hand gesture. They also reinforce their verbal communication with strong gesticulations. So don’t just pay attention to what is said, but stay tuned to other non-verbal cues.
Italians have a rather small sense of personal space. They like to talk face to face, so they stand or sit close together and will also touch each other in conversation.
If you are not used to that you may feel crowded by Italians. This is understandable but please be aware that stepping back in order to protect your personal space is often unconsciously perceived by Italians as rejection. It can therefore be helpful to be aware of the culturally different social distance in order to feel less personally invaded.
Gestures that can be misunderstood
There are also many gestures that may seem unfamiliar to you or that are simply interpreted differently in Italy. Here are some examples:
- If an Italian sits opposite you with slightly raised fists, this is by no means to be understood as a threat, but as an expression of helplessness.
- Wanting to drop the argument is signalled by a small hand motion.
- If you want to beckon someone, move your hand towards you with the back of your handheld forward and your fingers pointing down.
- In Italy, putting the fingertips of a hand together at the mouth does not only mean that something tastes wonderful but also expresses that something has been done perfectly.
- If your counterpart briefly pulls down their lower eyelid with their index finger, it basically means “Watch out!” It does not signal doubts about what has been said before.
- The gesture of joining the fingertips of one hand and moving the hand back and forth at the height of the upper body while facing the other is also very Italian. This is how you show that you have not understood something or simply do not want to hear or believe it.
- “No” or “I don’t care” is often signalled by the hand being held under the chin and then quickly flicked outwards. The head moves slightly backwards at the same time.
- Be careful: Holding your thumb or keeping your fingers crossed is completely unknown in Italy!