Talking With One’s Hands: It’s not rude. It’s a Jewish And Italian Thing! | #Culture on Blog#42

A well-loved columnist expressed his offense at a perceived rudeness of Bernie Sanders’ in the PBS debate and he cautioned that Bernie wouldn’t be well-received among Southerners, and especially older Black women in the South as Sanders’ kind of hand gesturing is considered offensive in Southern Black culture.

It has long been known that Italians and Jews talk with their hands. Many other cultures are known for their propensity to include a fair amount of hand-gesturing. It is one of the most recognizable cultural features many groups share, and these particular two are best known for, among other features. Here, in this episode of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, watch Carl Reiner and Jerry Seinfeld at about 2:45. Reiner’s hands go up as soon as he begins talking. If you stick around, you’ll get to see another big hand talker, the great Mel Brooks.

Now, this columnist has been living and working among Jews and Italians in New York for a couple of decades and it is odd that he hasn’t noticed the hand talking in all that time. Be that as it may, The New York Times published some pieces on the topic, including this review, “It’s Not Just a Myth: They Do Speak With Their Hands,” which begins:

“Mr. Stellino makes a colorful point that is central to the premise of this one-hour documentary. In all of the distinctive characteristics of America’s various ethnic groups — those quirks and curiosities that have often formed the basis of ethnic jokes and stereotypes — there is, upon closer inspection, complexity and richness. Hence, Mr. Stellino embraces that old ethnic saw that Italians ”speak with their hands” and shows us that in all those flying hands, there is a depth of feeling and a flair for individual expression that is to be envied, not mocked.”

Jews and Italians, historically, were racially-profiled, ridiculed, and even physically battered, based on cultural stereotyping of this particular cultural trait. One antisemitic insult was to couch Jews as vulgar because they hand talk. This profiling was very prominent in popular art, the first movies and animations in the early part of last century, for example. While the conversation about America’s varied cultures has not focused on this aspect in some time, these cultural mannerisms still exist.  Jews have been around for a long time in this nation, as have Italians, including in the Deep South.  When commenting on culture and social issues, it is a must to have as wide-ranging a knowledge as possible about cultural differences among different groups of Americans before making public judgments.

There really was no rudeness involved here. We are all different. Hand talking isn’t rude. Now that you know, please pass it on. We need more, not less tolerance.

PS: Guess who else is a “yuge” finger wagger?

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Additional reading on gesturing:

MSNBC’s Irin Carmon: What’s in a gesture? To some, a double standard

Fast Company: Here’s What Your Hand Gestures Are Saying While You Speak

7 thoughts on “Talking With One’s Hands: It’s not rude. It’s a Jewish And Italian Thing! | #Culture on Blog#42”

  1. Rima, Charles wasn’t criticizing Bernie for talking with his hands. He was reacting to the continuous gesturing and hand-raising that Bernie was doing when Hillary was talking. It showed a lack of control and was rude and distracting. It was like a kid who disrupts the class by continually raising his hand when others are called on.

  2. Last night, Chris Matthews characterized Sanders raising his hand as if he was signaling for a waiter. That was kind of funny and then he said, it wasn’t as if there was anyone else to call on. You have to love Bernie’s enthusiasm!!! You get the feeling he would debate all night into the morning if they would let him.

  3. It is time for a certain community, which Charles is part of, to address its deeply rooted antisemitism.

  4. It is my observation that Jews talk with their arms and Italians talk with their hands. I once met an Italian Jew who talked with both at the same time! It occurs to me that the gestures are nothing more or less than an effort to emphasize the emotional content of the message being delivered. If you didn’t feel it you wouldn’t normally use hands or arms to emphasize it.

    This also is why Hillary appears manufactured, particularly with her sweeping circular motion with her arm extended. This can’t possibly be a reflection of internal emotional state.

    1. Exactly! What’s more, Bill Clinton is a yuuuge finger-wagger and he’s a Southerner. Using the logic that it is offensive, how has he not offended millions? If that’s all they have against Sanders, then I guess that’s that!

  5. What an incredible subject! Having grown up half Italian and a small town on the edge of Appalachia with an assortment of relatives and friends – an environment in which English Italian French and Yiddish were used mainly by the adult immigrant generation, and having lived and worked in New York City for four years and then in the deep South – where my white southern supervisor found it necessary to explain to the African and Cuban Americans on the staff that the two northerners (Italian-Americans) “talk with their hands and if you want them to stop talking, you have to grab their hands,” was an hilarious introduction to southern manners. After having lived studied and worked the Mediterranean for a few years and having done a stint in India – where body language is so subtle and can get rather complicated and confusing–I have to say that this is a fascinating and subject! Although my Italian and French language skills have faded in my Yiddish lexicon has shrunken to almost nil, I still catch myself speaking with my body, especially when I speaking with people the Mediterranean descent whose first language is not English and my Jewish fiends from the northeast. It’s just part of my DNA. Not to use body language is akin to speaking without a sense of punctuation or, similar to consciously trying not to use definite and indefinite adjectives when speaking English There is a subtle racial/anti semitic/class bias going on there–with respect to Senator Sanders. In contrast to Hillary Clinton, who is so bland, that whenever she moves, it screams “studied, mechanical” and appears disingenuous inspiring distrust–to me. Like WASP food! No passion! LOL

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