What Cheek Pinching Means in Italy

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In Italy cheek pinching is done with affection. It’s an endearing way to let someone younger know they are cute or sweet.

Ever see something so darn cute you just have to reach out and pinch of squeeze it? You’re not alone! This article discusses what cheek pinching means culturally, “cute aggression” the scientific reason we feel the urge to pinch cheeks, and my own personal story of adult cheek pinching in Italy!

What Cheek Pinching Means

People pinch cheeks with feeling to greet or leave someone with affection. Culturally cheek pinching is a non verbal way to let someone, usually younger, know you think they are cute in the sense of sweet. It’s endearing. A non-threatening form of affection. It’s also tactile. A pinched cheek has a way of reminding you for some time after of the person who pinched you.

Peter Falk in The Princess Bride
Video of Peter Falk pinching Fred Savage’s cheek in The Princess Bride

Do Italians pinch cheeks? You bet they do, but there are limits. Despite the rumours that men pinch women on the bottom in Italy, pinching in Italy is usually between family members and facial cheeks. Even in Italy where people are very touchy feely, it is highly offensive to pinch someones bottom. There of course are exceptions. Two people in a trusting romantic relationship for example.

What is Cute Aggression

Ever experience the urge to reach out and squeeze an adorable baby or a cute puppy? That feeling is “cute aggression.” Back in 2015 “cute aggression was defined in a Yale study as “being overcome with positive emotion resulting in a superficially aggressive response aimed at gaining control of ones feelings.” In other words cute aggress is an urge to squeeze, crush or bite cute things without the desire to cause harm.

Back in 2019 NPR discussed the science of cute aggression noting Assistant Professor at the University of California, Riverside Katherine Stavropoulos’ work. “Essentially, for people who tend to experience the feeling of ‘not being able to take how cute something is,’ cute aggression happens,” Stavropoulos said. “Our study seems to underscore the idea that cute aggression is the brain’s way of ‘bringing us back down’ by mediating our feelings of being overwhelmed.”

Scientific America used the phrase “some things are just so cute you just can’t stand it.” My Mother used to use these exact words before crush my Sister and I with affection as we were growing up.

In short, cute aggression is nothing new to me. Having a stranger pinch my cheeck in public in Italy however was and this is my story.

Cheek Pinching in Italy

The other day I was having a decidedly un-Italian lunch. I’d driven 45 minutes south to Susa, Italy for sushi. It was my first day out with the car in Italy, without Paolo, thus the sushi. I’d mustered up the courage to take the winding Alps road, park half on the sidewalk, ask for a table for one, and order for myself in Italian. The wine was in order.

There I sat with my glass of white wine, sushi, and a stack of flashcards working diligently on my Italian when someone caught my eye. Glancing up, I saw an older woman dressed in a leopard print coat, with a matching leopard print mask. She was the sort of woman you notice. The kind that seems just a half step off. Her voice was a notch too loud, her gestures too big taking up more space than her 5’2″ frame would imply, and Her mask, uselessly cupping her chin.

Unlike other customers who waited by the door, she wandered into the restaurant and stood between two tables. One of them was mine. An odd place to stand, I thought.

Intently she watched me flip through my cards. An open invitation.

“Il vino è buono? Forse dovrei bere del vino a pranzo.” Is the wine good? Maybe I should have some with my lunch. Half question, half statement.

“Sî, vino è buono con sushi.” Yes, wine is good with sushi, I managed. If my flashcards hadn’t given me away, my accent and broken Italian had.

“Di dove sei” Where are you from?

Holy crap, I understand her, I thought and what’s more, I knew what to say.

“Da America” From America.

“Davvero, Americana?” Really, American?

“Sì” Yes.

I thought that would be the end of it. My elementary Italian wasn’t ready for deeper conversations with strangers.

She was having none of it.

“Sei a scuola qui?” Glancing at my flashcards, she asked if I was in school.

Apparently, my grays were not showing.

“No, mi sono trasferito qui ad aprile con mio marito. Il mio marito è Italiano.” No, I moved here with my Husband. My Husband is Italian.

“Per amore!” For love she exclaimed. The next bit was a little fuzzier, but I plucked out enough words to understand she too had moved here for love, although only from the south. She’d recently bought a home just around the corner. How fun, my husband and I had just decided on a place north of here in Bardonecchia.

The next thing I knew, in walked her love. Which became obvious because she began shouting “Amore, lei è Americana! Americana Amore!” She smiled down at me like she’d found a puppy. Another giant wave “Amore, lei è Americana!” she shouted a third time.

Heads were turning. My face was now on fire. An introvert by nature, I struggle with attention under normal circumstances. Being an immigrant, on my own, pointed out as American in the time of COVID and well Trump, left me a bit uncertain of what to do.

Italians pinch cheeks with feeling. It’s a way to greet or leave someone with affection. It is also a way to let someone, usually younger know you think they are cute in the sense of sweet. It’s endearing. A non-threatening form of affection. It’s also tactile. A pinched cheek has a way of reminding you for some time after of the person who pinched you.

Yep, the American in small-town Italy. That’s me. Nothing to see here folks.

I glanced up at my new friend. Her eyes were twinkling. It was then that I noticed her purple mascara. She was genuinely excited to see me. Introvert or not, I suddenly stopped minding. She was being nice to me. I had understood her words. Appreciated her quirkiness. Here was my first conversation with a stranger in Italy. I had passed and come out smiling. It felt good.

In the age of COVID it wasn’t the safest exchange with her emphatic breaths and flying spittle. Still, here stood a woman fascinated, open and kind. A Nonna with no kids to spoil. Something else I learned during our brief exchange. How could I not warm to her. Then it happened.

She reached out and pinched my cheek with vim and vigor. As if she wanted to take a piece of me with her. That was that. She smiled and walked to her table, off to have wine and sushi with her Amore.

I simply smiled at the surprise of my very first Italian cheek pinching. It was a good one too. She’d grabbed hard enough it reminded me of that scene in The Princess Bride where Peter Falk pinches Fred Savage.

Why Italians Pinch Cheeks

To sum it up, yes Italians pinch cheeks but usually between family members and usually facial cheeks. Cute aggression might be the scientific explanation behind why people pinch cheeks, but in Italy cheek pinching is also cultural. The older you get the more endearing cheek pinching becomes. Children however always seem to hate cheek pinching.

Italians break the touch barrier with strangers for more than Americans. Perhaps in time, I too might grow used to, or even grow to hate aggressive cheek pinching. Right now though, I’m looking at my 45th birthday so I’ll take it. Leopard print, purple mascara, and all.

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  1. I enjoyed reading this cheek-pinching segment, and I enjoyed following your conversation with the nonna. Like you, I could actually understand it!