04 June 2008

Counting to Three

Each day for lunch, a number of the students in our program pick up a quick panino at a "snack bar" (that is precisely what its overhang states) down the street from the Collegio. Waiting my turn a few days past, I observed a fascinating inter-cultural communication moment. The woman in front of me had her three children with her, and was speaking with the children in Japanese. When she tried to order her panini, she picked a salami on a small roll, and then indicated that she wanted "tree" mozzarella and tomato panini. When the barman did not understand what she wanted and indicated his confusion by waving his hands a bit and shaking his head, and repeating "tree" in a questioning tone, she repeated, "tree" and showed him her hand, like so:

Image from Wikimedia.

The barman was still confused. "Tree?" he asked. She nodded, and repeated, "Tree," again flashing three fingers at him. This continued for almost an entire minute, the two of them repeatedly failing to understand one another. I was contemplating intervening to help when she pointed to the children, counting the numbers on her fingers until she reached three. This did it. Delighted, the barman, announced, "Ah! Treis!" and proceeded to turn his hand with its back toward her and showed her this gesture:

This second image is a stock photo that I edited it fairly significantly prior to using. Originals can be found at istock.

The entire interaction took about two minutes, but the very small difference (which fingers we use to count) created a significant communication barrier. I, too, would have indicated three with fingers and no thumb--and now I, too, have a better sense how to communicate numbers with my hands in Italy.

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Works Cited

Fiona Wild, ed. Eyewitness Travel Rome (London: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 1993), 2007 edition.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Marble Faun. New York: Penguin Books, 1990/1860.

James, Henry. Daisy Miller. New York: Penguin Books, 2005/1878.

Powers, Alice Leccese. Italy in Mind: An Anthology. Toronto: Vintage Books, 1997.

Steves, Rick. Rick Steves' Italy 2007. New York: Avalon Travel Publishing, 2006.