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I think, in most cases, the anti-American stereotypes when it comes to travel are unfair. Generally speaking, we’re not any more or less obnoxious than any other travel group — we’re generally polite people, so we’re not too big of assholes abroad — unless, of course, we’re in an all-inclusive resort, in which case all bets are off.
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.
Even people who don’t hate Americans will say, “Yeah, you Americans are super loud.” 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.
Now, come to America, and you’ll find we all talk this way, and a loud voice at a restaurant isn’t really a problem unless it’s shouting obscenities. Our social speaking is just louder in general. So what’s the reason behind it?
I’ve heard some people say that “Americans are just loud by nature,” and this is grade-A bullshit. In the battle of nature vs. nurture, I’m firmly in the nurture camp. In part, this is because America hasn’t existed as a nation long enough for “loudness” to have been naturally selected through our DNA, and, in part, this is because I’ve been to football matches with Brits. Brits are, in general, much quieter talkers in social situations but are loud as fuck during football games. Seriously, American football has its hooligans, but they don’t hold a candle to the sound made by North London soccer hooligans.
So I’ve developed a pretty unscientific theory as to why Americans are louder than Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Israelis, Germans, and virtually everyone else. Here’s what I’ve come up with.
Americans have a much larger bubble for what they consider their ‘personal space.’ I have a few theories for the reasons behind it — the fact that we, as a nation, tend to closely guard our privacy and place an emphasis on personal property, the fact that we are much less densely populated than most other countries — none of which I can provide solid evidence for. What I can provide is this: Americans, in general, prefer to be four feet away from you while having a conversation. Europeans prefer to be two to three feet away.
This isn’t that much farther — what you say at two feet away will likely be heard from four feet away as well. But it might not be heard quite as well, and this might cause you to slightly raise your voice.
Noise level at bars
My favorite thing about returning to Britain is that I can finally sit in a pub and hear my friends talk. Pub culture is generally designed more around conversation than it is around music. Most pubs will have music playing, but they’ll keep it at a reasonable sound level, assuming, naturally, that their customers want to be able to hear everyone at their table speak.
American bars, on the other hand, tend to turn it up to 11 on the sound system. I was at a sports bar just the other day watching the opening of March Madness — a time for camaraderie and talking with friends if there ever was one — and they had absolutely horrible pop music playing at full blast. Yeah, this is what I want guys: I want to watch basketball to “Blurred Lines.”
I can’t for the life of me figure out why American bars do this. Maybe it’s because we don’t have as thick a line between ‘pubs,’ ‘bars,’ and ‘clubs’ as other countries do, so drinking establishments in the US can’t decide whether they want to get people out there dancing, or get them chatting at a table. The end result, though, is that if I want to talk to someone at a bar, I have to scream over the music.
This does a couple of things. First, I think it makes my voice a little bit stronger. You do this weekend after weekend, year after year, and you’re going to start having a stronger voice. Second, it absolutely annihilates my hearing. I’m 27 years old, and I’m already on the verge of needing an old-timey ear trumpet.
The end result either way? I talk louder in social situations. Unlike the Brits I’ve watched football with, I haven’t learned to shout louder, necessarily — I’ve just learned to talk louder.
I’m sure there are other cultural factors at play, but what I do know is this: The next time you hear an American talking loudly, no matter where you are in the world, please understand they aren’t doing it because they’re inconsiderate or obnoxious. They’re doing it because their local bartender back home is going through a serious Katy Perry phase and just can’t bring himself to dial back on “Teenage Dream.”