Getting the upperhand
Who Needs Berlitz When You’ve Got Two Good Hands?
There’s been a big flap about Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia’s recent response to a reporter. Seems his reply was not the usual judicial jabber. Instead it was a very expressive, very ethnic and not exactly complimentary hand gesture. A cupped hand under the chin that said “go scratch” quite clearly. “So,what’s the big deal?” say I. Ditto on Italy’s Prime Minister Br————- use of some colorful slang, well known on both sides of the Atlantic, regarding the voters in an upcoming election, the election he is currently losing. These two guys, an ocean apart, are Italian. They were under attack. And they were miffed, to put it kindly. The Americans (pronounced “medigon,” firmly and with slitted eyes, clenched teeth and a sharp snap of the hand ) are surprised, shocked, appalled. It makes the news. It’s water cooler chat. And it’s all in the day of the average Italian.
Before you cry foul because my last name doesn’t end in a vowel, stop and consider that my maternal grandmother, Maria Malfesa Marino Dadino, lived with my Americanized nuclear family from the time I learned to talk. Nanny’s parents emigrated from Italy so she grew up speaking Italian and, at the same time, learned English while at school. She’d speak English to the outside world and to us, but would revert to the native tongue when a sibling called, especially when she wanted to secret the news they were exchanging.” Jesu Christe, Jesu Christe” was often heard and I knew she wasn’t praying for salvation. Even though I was too young to know that “Jesu Christe” was an expletive I knew that it was an expletive. My grandmother’s tone (shrill, yet hushed), her face (furrowed brow, distinct scowl) and her stance (right hand gripping phone, left hand on hip, only momentarily dislodged to flail about during a particularly intense soliloquoy) told me everything.
And that’s the great thing about Italians. Conversation leaves the realm of simple communication and quickly becomes theatre (we invented opera, didn’t we?). Flaming fury, undying devotion, desperate grief, absolute terror, ecstatic joy and even mind-boggling confusion is acted out in one sweeping arm movement or, conversely, with one hand strategically placed, a la Signori Scalia. Or our own Rick Mariano, who seems to like to involve his entire body when sending his tortured message.
It doesn’t matter if the words spill out in Farsi, it’s the face, the voice and, without question, most importantly, the hands, that tell the real story. One of my husbands threatened to tie my hands behind my back so that I would shut up. He was of German descent. Enough said.
Experts say that words comprise 7% of communication, voice is 38% and body language is 55%. I say, with we Italians, you can bring words down to 1%, voice to 20% and body language to a whopping 79%. We don’t tell you, we show you. We have a form of sign language all our own.
I’ve seen books and websites that attempt to teach Italian signals. But, you can’t get it from a book. You have to feel it. It goes through the hands, but comes from the gut. And it is a beautiful thing. It’s open, honest and authentic. It’s also not always so serious. When it’s over, it’s over. That’s another thing my Prussian spouse didn’t get. We may curse you one minute, then embrace you the nextr. Like Vesuvias, we like to blow off a little steam. Threatening, but not really dangerous (Tony Soprano types are the exception).
So calm down. Enjoy us.
Ciao, mi amici.
When I went to Italy I spoke not a word of Italian (I didn’t think “Jesu Christe” counted), but conversed easily with the locals.