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The Loud American

One of the distinguishing characteristics of speakers of US English that makes them stand out in any crowd is the volume of their voices. In the US we speak much louder than do people speaking other languages or even other dialects of English.

My wife and I were shouting to each other across a particularly small table at our local pub last week when this observation arose again. We recalled the pleasure of dining in restaurants on our recent visit to southern France, where everyone kept their voices at a level where normal conversation was possible at all tables.

Donald Ogden Stewart’s Mr and Mrs Haddock Abroad, Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad and, of course, the The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick (1958) suggest that boisterousness is a quality US Americans assume only when they are abroad. I don’t detect any significant difference in our behavior at home and abroad.

Part of the problem is that many of us are unaware that people living in other cultures are different from us. Since the US considers itself the policeman of the world, it is easy for us to think that we own it.

We don’t often discuss why US Americans are so obnoxiously boisterous. The answers that I have heard include a suggestion that most in the US never quite grow up and that the loudness is that of childhood. Others think it is a remnant of the wild and wooly days of the frontier.

My own sense is that it is individualism out of control, slipping precipitously into selfishness. We worship individualism in this country often without understanding it, or without understanding it well enough to distinguish it from selfishness. All of the “I’m worth it” and “I want it all and I want it now” commercials on TV and radio seem to me to reflect this attitude. This sort of focus on oneself implies some degree of oblivion to others.

Anyway, we can speculate on the causes but I haven’t been able to find any lexical items that shed any light on the issue so far, so I won’t belabor the point. I would be interested if anyone else out there has any insight into the matter.

6 Responses to “The Loud American”

  1. Carolyn Says:

    Ah, one of my pet peeves! I’ve become very sensitive to this, especially in restaurants (and especially in nice restaurants when I’m trying to enjoy a civilized conversation).

    I’m the last person to be labeled Luddite, but I wonder how much of an impact technology (in its many forms) has had on this?

    Think about the way people have become used to yelling into cellphones, or chatting with their iPod earplugs in. Or the way music is played at high volume in pretty much every bar, restaurant, grocery store, gym.

    And if you live in a city, there’s constant noise from traffic and construction; heck, we live on a fairly quiet suburban street, but we’re under a flight path that stalls conversation on a regular schedule.

    It would be interesting to measure conversation volume by geographic location; do people in more rural, less industrialized parts of the country yell less (or more)?

  2. Jim Says:

    Hi,

    Is it an actual scientific fact that the average American conversation takes place at a higher decible level than average conversations in other languages? In my travels, I have unfortunately noticed the ugly American, but also noticed other loud groups. Is it possible that the foreign language sticks out more? Jim

  3. rbeard Says:

    I know of no scientific study of the subject but it seems rather obvious in European restaurants in places visited by US tourists.

    My wife and I dined at Kevin Taylor’s in Denver last night and noticed that in the US conversations are very ‘European’, i.e. low pitched, in swank restaurants. So, social class may be a contributing factor, too.

  4. Karen Albert Says:

    You have obviously never been in an elevator with 4 Italians, or a subway train with Asians heading to Flushing, NY.

  5. Paula Edwards Says:

    May I add to the last comment that you’ve never been in a restaurant in Fortaleza, Brasil. We have lived in Brasil for almost two years. When we came here we were told that “Brasileiros” looked askance at loud Americans and we needed to be aware of that when we were out in the public. We have since learned that Brazilians have no problem whatsoever yelling at a friend across a crowded restaurant. Added to that most places have a television on with the volume up (and sometimes piped in music at the same time) and “sound cars” passing on the street. We no longer worry about being offensively loud.

  6. When I think about Americans it’s never anti-Americanism, though it might appear that way. « voice from the pack Says:

    [...] to me they are folk I invariably like and have fun with. Occasionally I bump into the odd “American abroad” but only twice in a lifetime of travelling, so we’ll just say these Americans are [...]

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