Speak Up! (Don’t! I’m Packing Earplugs!)
I am shamed to admit that I totally lost my cool. Three young Americans were seated next to me at lunch on Friday, who became the brunt of my wrath, to their shock and offense. I did apologize five times for my outburst, but not sure that it mattered.
It’s not at all unusual for there to be tons of Americans at Café Charlot, alongside the neighborhood regulars, such as myself. And they are almost always the loudest of anyone. The din in the café mounts as it fills, but even with that, I can easily cocoon and block it out…as long as it’s a consistent din. It’s just when one or more voices rise well above the others that the pain in my ears becomes so acute that I have to do or say something.
In this case, one of the three was particularly booming—a young irreverent guy facing the back wall (and me) who was completely clueless that he was shouting, and what he was shouting was not conversation you might want everyone in the café to hear, but they did. I was trying to work on emails in peace. An elderly couple on the other side of me held their ears…literally. I rolled my eyes at one of the waiters who understood perfectly. One of the other regulars with whom I have come to be acquainted was seated on the other side of the elderly couple. When he tried to say something to me from about six feet away, it was impossible for him to be heard above the young American guy’s booming voice (that was also non-stop, not letting his friends get a word in edgewise). I sat there for more than 1.5 hours without saying anything, and then I just lost it.
“You have to stop shouting, NOW!” I shouted back. “I’ve had a lot of patience until now, but I really want to kill all three of you!” (Yes, I actually went that far…embarrassing, but true.) “You don’t realize how loud you are and as the noise in here escalates, so do your voices. It’s impossible to think. The couple next to me have been holding their ears. Are you so oblivious as to how loud you are?”
They stopped dead in their mouthful of tracks. And they stopped shouting. That was the good part. I apologized, as I said earlier, for knee-jerk reaction and for being so rude, and explained that I had just lost control.
“The longer I live here, the harder it is for me to take such loud voices,” I explained further. And I’m sure none of that mattered. They just left later without saying anything and am sure they talked about me after that as that the “#[email protected]!%” who reprimanded them!
Traveling Americans really are incredibly loud and getting louder all the time. It’s even noticeable when I’m in the U.S. and realize that everyone is shouting into their phones on the street, or at their free-wheeling kids down the aisle in the stores, or across their restaurant tables. The quality of their voices is different, too—more resonant than most others. Often it’s piercing and to my sensitive ears, painful.
I don’t mean to insult anyone. It’s clear if you’re one of these, you aren’t even aware of it, because the culture allows and encourages it. “Speak up,” the teacher said, “Be heard.”
By contrast in France, the parent or the teacher will say, “Speak softly; you don’t want others to hear you.” Their privacy is important and this manifests itself in the level of their voices. Plus, French is such a soft language, with so much coming from the throat, that it’s almost difficult to be too loud (although it does happen from time to time). English is certainly not that.
Once on a public Paris bus about 25 years ago, I sat across from an American couple who were arguing—really arguing—but I couldn’t hear a word they were saying. Even then, I realized that they must have been in France a long time to have learned how to modulate their voices as well as that. I was impressed.
I often wonder how it happens that Americans have this distinctively different quality of voice. And I’m not the only one asking this question. Google it for yourself and you’ll see.
From Julia Belluz at Vox.com: “As a Canadian working in the U.S., I am often struck by how much louder my fellow diners in restaurants seem to be, and how much more loudly the people I’m walking near on streets speak to one another or into their cellphones.”
From Matt Hershberger at matadornetwork.com: “But one stereotype I’ve come to begrudgingly accept is that Americans are the loudest talkers on the planet. I’ve been talking to friends at foreign bars, hostels, and restaurants far too many times in what I thought was a perfectly acceptable volume and then caught, out of the corner of my eye, a scowl or an eye-roll from the adjacent table. I’ll get embarrassed and then try to speak as quietly as I can for the rest of the meal. You know, until someone says something funny. It’s not an attack, it’s just an honest-to-god, measured-in-decibels statement of fact. There are brass bands that are easier on the ears than an American voice in a crowded restaurant.”
The question remains for me: Why?
Space is definitely one reason. Americans have a larger space bubble than Europeans. Tables are bigger so diners are further apart. Beds are bigger so even intimate couples aren’t as intimate. Restaurants and bars in the U.S. purposely design the acoustics to reverberate to create a kind of excitement, so that drives it up, too. And there’s that whole idea of speaking up, being bold, standing up for oneself, etc., that is so American in nature.
But, were we not taught some sort of decorum or respect for the other people? So, does all this contribute to actually creating voices that are above average, too? We weren’t born that way, were we?
A. C. Brown in quora.com wrote: “We are greatly encouraged, from a young age, in the U.S. to give our opinion and share our individual voice. ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease,’ we’re told. Your individual expression is a matter of serious importance in America. No surprise that YouTube, blogging, etc. started in the U.S. Speaking up is so important to us, in fact, that it’s a matter of national ideology and pride. We are inculcated with the belief, from a young age, that we are a free people and freedom of speech is something our forefathers lived and died for. We must exercise our freedom! Individually, each one of us matters and we each have the potential to change the world with our voice. Speak up or you don’t count! I think these sentiments and values swirl around the unconscious of every American who was born and raised there and it manifests itself through a default setting of having a louder-than-normal voice. It’s just part of our makeup.”
Okay. Maybe it is, but why are we so unconscious? How can we not know we’re the only ones in the room speaking loudly? When you get on the Métro or bus and not a peep can be heard, wouldn’t it be natural to whisper like the others? What about in museums in France? Even the children are very quiet and you rarely hear people talking above a whisper…except for the Americans who don’t seem to care that their voices are the only ones heard at all. Don’t American tourists already know they have this reputation and wouldn’t they make an effort to change it? Or do they simply not care?
I ask all these questions because it really puzzles me. It’s also embarrassing as an American that we have so little control. And I had no control over my reaction toward the unsuspecting threesome at Café Charlot either. I embarrassed myself. I can also honestly say I used to be very guilty of speaking too loudly, myself, until I became conscious like that arguing couple on the bus.
Please, all of you out there—I beg of you to raise your consciousness when you’re traveling in France, not your voices. And I will try my best to keep my cool, but I can tell you that from now on, I’m packing ear plugs!
A la prochaine…