Linguists/Sociologists - why do some cultures use more gestures ?

Title says it all. To be specific, I am quite awed by the use of hand gestures by Italians.

Neither of the above, but I was taught as a child that it was related to whether the general culture of a nation was more introvert or extravert; with the former being cold and reserved and the latter unfortunately warmhearted, open and easily excited.
Japan, Germany and most states north of there being introverted; South Africa, the Americas, Australia and Poland being extroverted.
Part of Italy, though, particularly the North and Sicily are probably as introverted as Northern Spain itself.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVR9cZ4tii0

And we still talk with our hands or, in the case of the Italians, their whole arms; then again, Spaniards have been known to point with our whole bodies, because in recent times we’ve been informed that pointing with your fingers is considered impolite by many other cultures; we seem to be incapable of not-pointing. We’ve actually done tests as a joke of having the hand-talkers talk with our hands in our pockets and damn it’s hard!

There is the old joke about the Italian officer captured by the Russians during the Battle of Stalingrad who stands up to the most savage interrogation by the NKVD, telling them absolutely nothing. When asked how he had held out, he replies “How could I talk? My hands were tied!”

Assuming you don’t want to watch a video to figure out a post, the argument the native Italian gives here is that the use of Italian gestures had to do with mutual intelligibility. It seems to actually function as a type of sign language, with specific meaning to each gesture.

Or, in her own words, “In the past, we started using the hand gestures to be understood by other people, because Italian is a very difficult language, so it’s important to be clear to communicate with other people. This is the reason Italian people use so much of these gestures.”

Gestures served the purpose of emoticons, and were necessary to the degree that a spoken vocabulary failed to carry all the nuance that might have been required. For example, in many languages, the words for “Hello” and “Goodbye” were the same, so gestures developed complementary to the ambiguous words.

Yes, but the question remains - why? Why develop a gesture rather than a separate word? Or even, why are there cultures where certain word/gesture pairs are almost always used together while others do not?

As an example, this morning we had a situation I expect most of us have been in: James driving, William giving him directions, at one point William said “turn right at the intersection… sorry, I mean left!” Being English, William had not pointed while saying “turn right”; a Spaniard or Italian would have pointed and have heard “which right? You’re saying right but pointing left!” before he even had time to correct himself.

Weirdly, I’ve noticed that I use more gestures in other languages than in English. That’s got to be transmitted culture.

In my case, it is because I am aware that my fluency in the other language is limited, so I either supplement it with gestures/body language, or use gestures to improve the odds that I will be understood as intended. The Spanish pronouns for formal-“you” and “he” are the same (or, to me, seem to be) so I gesture to make my referent clear.

Some thoughts for Nava’s question of why gestures rather than additional words:

Gestures can convey certain types of information faster and easier than words and vice versa. Pointing at a building takes less than a second, while describing it in words will probably take a bit more than a second. Naming a person who isn’t present can be done with a single word but would require a complex series of gestures (essentially describing the person) for most cases.

Gestures can be done silently and/or discreetly, which is helpful when hunting, stalking, or any other situation where concealing a statement is desired.

Living in Japan as a not-entirely-fluent person, I started to use hand gestures extensively, to help people understand what I was saying. I wouldn’t be surprised if the more frequently that people have to talk through language barriers, the greater the number of hand gestures in that region.

I’m not sure how well that tracks to reality, but it’s a hypothesis to test.

Coming from a culture (European Jews) that also makes extensive use of hand gestures, I’ve long been curious about this myself.

I think the answer is cultural. My great aunt Esther married a nice Italian boy, so half the family at reunions is Jewish and the other half is Italian American. If you take away obvious signs (Stars of David, Crosses etc), it’s very hard to tell who’s who. We all have in common

Talking with our hands

Dad thinks he’s in charge but everybody else know that mom is in charge.

Your parents and grandparents speak in another language when they don’t want you to understand

Food is love. If you don’t eat it all, you must hate the cook or the server.

Guilt is power.

You love going to restaurants that serve your culture’s food. But nobody can match nana’s recipe.

The list goes on.

All in the Family, Season 1, Episode 1, viewable on YouTube:

19:41-19:49
Archie: “But I ain’t Jewish!”
Mike: “Look at that. Look at that! See the way he uses his hands when he argues? Very semitic gesture!”

20:07-20:21
Archie: “But I *ain’t Jewish!”
Edith: “I didn’t know you was Jewish!”
Archie: “What the hell are you talking about?! You of all people should know I ain’t Jewish!”
Edit: “You are talking with your hands!”

That’s a good point too…

What’s “unfortunate” about being extroverted?

And South Africans may be extroverted, but we’re not very gestural (compared to, say, Italians or Spaniards)

polishes monocle
The ideal is neither to express nor suppress emotions, but simply not to have them in the first place.

:dubious: Fascinating!

When Sixty Minutes did a piece on actor Michael Caine, he talked about his acting in the 1964 movie Zulu, in which he portrayed an aristocratic army officer. Caine said he did two things very deliberately: he spoke slowly; and he minimized use of his hands when he talked. He claimed these things were associated with people of higher status.

This made sense to me: hand gestures help keeps people’s attention, and a high-status person doesn’t need to worry about this. Even if he’s boring them, they’ll listen until he’s done.