Means and meanings

The how says much of the what, if you know what I mean.

Tech press of late are enthused about image-based messaging apps like Snapchat and Instagram, which seem to threaten the monopoly of text-based chat (a.k.a. the battlegrounds of most teen drama). Media is aflutter with predictions that society’s new mode of connection will stand on photos more than words. I was tracking this speculation of industry changes for work on Monday.

Later that same day (scrolling The New York Times’ app while standing up in an SF Muni train and knowing full well someone was reading the news over my shoulder like I sometimes do for other people) I saw another headline in another section: “When Italians Chat, Hands and Fingers Do the Talking.” The word “chat” may have caught my eye because it’s relevant to a client, but the content was entirely different.

When we were studying abroad in Florence two springs ago, my four closest friends and I toyed incessantly with Italian gestures: we scoped them out on the street, tossed them into our own conversations, re-enacted the way our seven-year-old host sibling did them. I spent much of that spring (some of which is recorded here) with those peeps who, as much as I did, wanted to wear and breathe Italian culture. So, of course, gestures were included. They were ever entertaining because of how casual and carefree they were, and cryptic.

That is why this passage struck me:

“Some gestures are simple: the side of the hand against the belly means hungry; the index finger twisted into the cheek means something tastes good; and tapping one’s wrist is a universal sign for “hurry up.” But others are far more complex. They add an inflection — of fatalism, resignation, world-weariness — that is as much a part of the Italian experience as breathing.”

I would never on my own have described Italian gestures so darkly, but  it immediately rang true for me. The author somehow captures the irony of Italian apathy toward life – the one that on good days is praised as nonchalance and carpe diem! by us non-Italians. The sense of “fatalism, resignation, world-weariness” reminded me how almost every Italian peer I met expressed envy I came from California, brought up their shame of Italian politics, and said they wished they could leave for somewhere else, better. Through my entire quarter in Florence, those conversations were the biggest surprise, as we slopped up exquisite gelato and strolled the cool streets of the city at midnight. Not that that was the “reality” of Italy, but it was undeniably a part of it. The gestures captured all of that, were so Italian, and maybe that’s my friends and I chased them so enthusiastically. (Also, we’re non-Italian Americans; it gets hilarious.)

I believe communication is a conduit for even larger social forces, and fascinating for what it reveals of the cultures that own it. I loved the same-day appearance of one story tracking young messaging companies in Silicon Valley, and another tracking the cultural evolution of Italian hand gestures. Short-term and long-term, digital and analog, two such different spheres of human connection, and both so, so relevant to the societies concerned. I could go back to school for this.

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