Italy and Sweden For Members

Yes, Italians do use more hand gestures than Swedes, researchers find

Becky Waterton
Becky Waterton - [email protected]
Yes, Italians do use more hand gestures than Swedes, researchers find
Italians and Swedes didn't just differ in the number of gestures they made, but also the type of gesture. Photo: Christina @ on Unsplash

Two researchers from Lund University, a Swede and an Italian, carried out a study into whether there’s any truth to the stereotype that Italians gesture more than Swedes, with help from an unlikely source.


In the study, researchers Maria Graziano and Marianne Gullberg asked twelve people from Italy and twelve from Sweden to watch an episode of children’s show Pingu (Pingu’s Family Celebrate Christmas, if you’re curious).

They then asked each person, using their native language, to explain what had happened in the episode from memory to a friend who hadn’t seen it, before examining their gestures while they spoke.

Overall, the Italian speakers gestured more than the Swedes, with 698 gestures in total, compared with the Swedes’ 389, or 22 gestures per 100 words for Italians compared to 11 for Swedes.

They also produced more gestures per clause: 1.8 to Swedes’ 1.2.

Why is this?

Although the study confirmed that Italians gesture more than Swedes, it also revealed something else.

Swedes and Italians differed in the type of gesture they used, with Swedes much more likely to use “referential gestures”, gestures which describe events or actions, such as a hand signifying children moving towards their mother or a pinching gesture to mimic tasting a piece of dough. Swedes used 310 of this type of gesture compared to 272 for the Italians.

The Italians, on the other hand, used more of what the researchers describe as “pragmatic gestures”, which comment on the story rather than describe it, such as a gesture when introducing a new character or when moving on to a new piece of information. They used a whopping 426 pragmatic gestures compared to the Swedes, who used just 79.


According to the study, this suggests that the Italians and Swedes think about a narrative in different ways, with “a more concrete and event-focused conceptualisation in Swedish” compared to “a more abstract, pragmatic one in Italian”. 

These are also reflected in different rhetorical styles between speakers of the two languages, which, the researchers say, were mainly visible in their gestures, rather than their speech. Swedes, they write, focus more on referential content and the events of the story, while Italians also focus on highlighting the presentation of new information in the story.

Graziano and Gullberg add that the next step for this research could be looking at how gestures are used in different types of conversation, as well as between speakers who are more or less familiar with each other than those in this study.


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