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Speak Up! (Don’t! I’m Packing Earplugs!)

The model of the Statue of Liberty in Paris
The American in the room

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.

Café Charlot Photo by Lisa Anselmo© http://www.lisaanselmo.com as it appears at Save the Paris Café https://savethepariscafe.com/2019/10/28/my-favorite-cafe-is-cafe-charlot/

Café Charlot, photo by Lisa Anselmo©, as it appears at Save the Paris Café

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?”

Ceramic head with mouth wide open, shouting

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.”

Banner saying Speak up Amerca, make your voice 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.

Drawing demonstrating the idea of space bubbles

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?

Diagram of table sizes for restaurants

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.”

Giant bed at The Bedding Mart

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…

Adrian Leeds at Café Charlot, Photo © by Lisa Anselmo www.lisaanselmo.comAdrian Leeds
The Adrian Leeds Group®

Adrian at Café Charlot, Photo © by Lisa Anselmo

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21 Comments

  1. Merle Minda on March 14, 2022 at 8:15 am

    I remember taking our 3 kids, ages 15, 14 and 8, to Scotland. When we were in restaurants and particularly hotel dining rooms our voices were booming compared to other diners. For the remainder of the trip we all worked hard to keep our voices down but it was hard. However that lesson was in forgotten by all of us.

  2. Victoria Michaelis on March 14, 2022 at 9:06 am

    Hi…
    I just flew home from a wonderful week in Paris, last night.
    I agree with you…there are a LOT of ugly Americans wherever one goes.
    The good news is Parisians seem MUCH friendlier post Covid!

  3. Janice Siebert on March 14, 2022 at 9:20 am

    I have noticed it repeatedly and been embarrassed by it. I think you were incredibly patient and completely justified!

  4. Anne Keefe on March 14, 2022 at 10:11 am

    I’m embarrassed quite often by fellow Americans. I hate going out to dinner or for drinks because you simply can’t hear yourself think, or have a decent conversation with your spouse and/or another couple dining with you. I’m glad you yelled at them, they were being rude and selfish.

  5. Richard Porter on March 14, 2022 at 10:15 am

    So true and I am so guilty myself. On behalf of all Americans I apologize. I remember sitting close to some ladies from California in a small French restaurant and I heard everything about their lives and trip. I noticed my wife and I who arrived after them were served long before them. Still I forget and again promise to try to shut up! I get mad at my wife when she says talk quieter but she is right.

  6. Jacqueline Fobes on March 14, 2022 at 10:27 am

    Good for you! Americans think they are the center of the universe and often are selfish with have no regard for others. Their mothers obviously never taught them consideration of others so I am glad you said something. I could not have waited 1 1/2 hours to do so. I enjoy your blog. Keep up the good work.

  7. Bonnie on March 14, 2022 at 10:29 am

    Adrian,
    You have touched on a pet peeve of mine! Even in the States people talk too loudly, for my America ears, especially young Americans. I attribute it to all the noise generated in bars, restaurants, etc. they frequent, as being part of the reason. I and friends avoid some restaurants, as they are so loud there is no ability to hold a conversation at the table. I too am embarrassed in France when i hear some Americans speak so loudly. On the other hand, I have experienced young French women laughing and talking loudly too at cafes, not in restaurants. I’m surprised by this and wonder if they’d just returned from a semester abroad – in America! Even if these young people you chastised, thought you were crazy, I think it opened their ears to how others modulated their voices.
    Ha – thanks for speaking up

  8. Dr. Lynette Adams on March 14, 2022 at 10:35 am

    Yes, people can be loud in French, too. French is not a language spoken in the throat but may be thought of as “softer” than English.
    It’s just that many people, including Americans, don’t study enough about cultural norms and differences before they go abroad.
    This breach of etiquette is just a manifestation of this… Shame!

  9. Cheryl Beck on March 14, 2022 at 10:53 am

    Oh my goodness, please do not apologize, Adrian. As Canadians, my husband and I can immediately identify Americans when we travel just by the volume of their voices. We have also asked the same questions – do they not realize how loud their are, do they not care, are they so self-absorbed that they are not aware of the reactions of people around them, etc. The best was when we were in Kenya and one of the comments in the hotel guest book said that the wildlife viewing was excellent except for the loud Americans on the game drives. We knew exactly who they were talking about as we heard them as well, even though their van was quite far from ours. Please keep calling them out!

  10. Sherry Finkelstein on March 14, 2022 at 12:01 pm

    I couldn’t agree with you more, and I’m impressed you lasted 1.5 hours before saying anything! It is another thing we miss about Paris and are so aware of now that we’re back in the States. We look forward to your newsletter and enjoy hearing what’s going in Paris and Nice. Perhaps our paths will cross again someday! Best wishes!

  11. Richard Price (Friend of Mike Mancini) on March 14, 2022 at 12:27 pm

    Adrian,

    I totally understand your frustration with the loudness of Americans. It’s one of our worst traits. I used to own a tour company, and I once had a tour group of American college students at a beer garden in Germany. I left them at their table and went outside for a bit. The only voices I could hear were theirs. They drowned out all the other people there. Here in Paris, I encounter this frequently, and I’m often tempted to do what you did. Usually, (especially if the offenders are men), I hold off. But it’s so tempting to simply say “Shut up.”

  12. Denise Dijak on March 14, 2022 at 12:30 pm

    We don’t blame you a bit for telling those guys to quiet down. Wherever we travel, Americans are the loudest. I have to remind my husband to lower his voice. However, he is hard of hearing and doesn’t know he is speaking loudly.

  13. Karen Gee - Oakland, CA on March 14, 2022 at 1:19 pm

    Adrian, thanks so much for this article! I get very embarrassed when I travel to France and see Americans behaving loudly. I’m traveling to Paris in April with two cousins who will be visiting for the first time. They asked about restaurant etiquette and I did tell them about keeping our voices and laughter down. I’m lucky my family members are sensitive enough to have even asked.

    I’m 70 years old and have noticed the increased volume of American interactions too. Some behavior seems to be cultural, where people don’t care who hears their arguments and conversations, particularly when they choose to use their speaker phones in public. Planes are the worst because we’re all captive to loud conversations and children allowed to run up and down the aisles. When I ask someone to lower their volume, I’m often met with surprise, but they’ll lower their voices. Others act like I’m trying to take away their civil rights.

    Thanks for trying to improve the reputations of Americans who visit France.

  14. Janine Cortell on March 14, 2022 at 1:20 pm

    For those of wearing hearing aids it’s even more painful.
    But what I hate most in restaurants here in the US are places with music. The other day we had to ask our waitress to turn down the music because we could not hear one another across the table.
    I do not eat in places that have loud music. I appreciate the quiet atmosphere of all places in France. I was born in France and I took students to France every other year. I took time before the trip how to behave, what to expect, etc.
    My pet peeve is the airport. Try finding a seat where no one is talking on their
    Cell phone. We are constantly exposed to everyone’s life.
    However, let me say this, my daughter and husband were so rudely treated at a restaurant in Paris they said they would spend their money on their next trip somewhere else.abroad.

    • Adrian Leeds Group on March 14, 2022 at 1:26 pm

      Thanks for sharing your comments. It’s a shame that your daughter and her husband would dismiss Paris as a destination based one experience.

  15. Harry Whitehouse on March 14, 2022 at 1:53 pm

    This is one of your best articles IMHO. Your actions were perfectly justifiable and appropriate (including the apology which was gracious). But the analysis which followed was brilliant!!

    As an aside, I discovered Café Charlot before I knew you were a regular patron. Whenever I’m in Paris, I try to have at least one meal there. There’s something special there — je ne sais quoi. The surrounding neighborhood is special as well.

  16. Megan Gates on March 14, 2022 at 7:03 pm

    Dear Adrian, I just had to say “bravo” to this message and to your speaking out to this group. I grew up in Tokyo. It is considered dreadful manners there to speak loudly in restaurants, public transportation or other enclosed settings where others may be bothered by loud voices. Unfortunately Americans are well known for their disregard of this principle in Tokyo! I do try to model good behavior as an American while there, but the subtle message doesn’t always get through. Kudos to you for your bravery and for speaking up on behalf of common courtesy (not so common these days sadly)!

  17. Patricia Jean Vanderhoof on March 15, 2022 at 9:51 pm

    Good for you Adrian. When I lived in Paris during the 1960’s we were not fond of Americans because of how loud they were and seemingly inconsiderate. Seemed to think the world revolved around them as one other poster said. Of course, I didnt personally know any Americans then. Since then Ive met many and even married one. So cant tar them all with the same brush. However, i just returned from a 3 week tour of Jordan and Egypt. Since my husband and travelling partner, passed away, I invited my best friend of 40 years to go with me. She had never been abroad before. She wouldnt try any Egyptian food (I tried it all!). Coming back she was trapped in immigration in JFK for one hour (she refused to buy the Global Pass I advised). When she finally got through she was furious and ranted on about people in the line who couldnt speak English and that they had no right to come to the US if they couldnt speak English. I didnt refute her opinion, just asked her if she spoke Egyptian when we were in Egypt. At least I tried to learn a few words (I do that in every country I visit if I dont speak the language), she didnt even try that much. Am going to Portugal in April – alone!

  18. Peter Pleitner on March 16, 2022 at 10:53 am

    Totally !! And its because its ok in America to be clueless. There is virtually no feedback from American society. You wouldn’t dare do what you did in Abilene, TX! It also explains an aspect of the devolution of our political discourse.

    I immigrated to America with my parents when I was eight. Nothing was more important to me than learning to blend in ASAP, not impossible because I lost any trace of a German accent in a year. Only the presence of my parents could reveal the true me. One can’t blend in without developing good observational skills, something Germans seem to be very good at, whereas the French have perfected the pretense of not noticing.

    But blending in is not a skill Americans have had to develop at home. There is no need for respecting cultural differences here. And I can’t imagine what could make that change, unfortunately.

  19. Jacqueline on March 16, 2022 at 4:14 pm

    It’s almost a badge of honor for some American. There is a swell of groups that have decided to purposefully go against the status quo. A this is how you differentiate me from the rule followers. When in actuality, no one wants to hear your opinionated opinion. Even the Grinch changed his ways.

  20. Debra on March 17, 2022 at 11:30 pm

    I’m impressed that you kept your sang-froid for so long! I’m an American of French Canadian ancestry and lived in France as a grad student. Anywhere I’ve traveled, I’ve always been able to hear Americans even before I see them. And the volume of sound can be obnoxious even outdoors. Recently at a hotel in California with my husband, we were outside for breakfast and a woman from Idaho speaking in her normal voice (presumably), made it clear that she was from Idaho and her conversation was heard by more than just the nearest table. When we left, we looked at each other and said “loud”. It was the only word needed! We try to leave a good impression wherever we go and as a French instructor on the community college level, I have always tried to impress upon my students to not come across as “ugly Americans” if they are from the states. Thank you for bringing up this topic and I enjoy reading
    your articles!

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