Are Americans louder than the British?

You know that stereotype about noisy Americans? If you don’t, you’re American and you think the whole world talks at the same level as you.

It doesn’t.

Back when Wild Thing and I lived in Minneapolis, our friends D. and D. traveled from quietest Devon to visit us. When they reeled off the plane, jet lagged and culture shocked, they confessed that they’d thought Wild Thing was loud until they changed planes in Chicago, where they had a revelation: Wild Thing isn’t loud, she’s just American.

Okay, they might have waited a few days to say that. Or it could’ve been a few years. I don’t really remember. But they did say it. And since they worry (especially the one D.) endlessly and unnecessarily about offending people, I should add that we weren’t offended. We thought it was (a) true and (b) very funny.

The British, as a rule, are quiet–at least when sober. They don’t like to stand out in a crowd. They teach their children seventy-four forms of politeness, most of which I don’t understand but at least a dozen of them are variants on not calling attention to themselves. And Americans? The positive way to see it is that we’re less inhibited. If you want the negative spin, we’re thoughtless and rude. Take your pick. Or take both. It’s not an either/or choice.

Irrelevant photo: Red campion (which is actually pink) surrounded by nettle leaves.

Irrelevant photo: Red campion (which is actually pink, and polite) surrounded by nettle leaves, which are not polite.

But when D. and D. commented on Wild Thing being noisy, they didn’t mention me. So when I’ve worried about whether and how and when I offend British sensibilities (and I do occasionally worry about it, although I don’t lose sleep to it), I’ve spent the past ten years thinking I was doing pretty well on volume level.

It’s not that I can’t be loud. I learned what my voice could do when I was thirteen or so and spent my Saturdays on picket lines in front of Woolworth’s because the store’s lunch counters in the South refused to serve African-Americans. It was my first independent political activity. We handed out leaflets and chanted slogans, and I was young enough to think we could end segregation by being loud, so I was loud. Without anyone teaching it to me how to do it, I stumbled into the trick that lets your voice feel like it’s coming directly from the chest, bypassing the throat and emerging into the world resonant enough to shatter antiquated and oppressive social systems.

Changing the world has turned out to be more complicated than I thought, but that form of segregation did eventually end and what we did wasn’t the primary reason but it wasn’t irrelevant either. And I walked away with an interesting education as well as a powerful sense of what my voice could do.

Somewhere during that time, I heard Odetta sing. She had a huge voice—strong, resonant, and lower than most women were willing, or maybe able, to sing—and she gave me an expansive sense of what a woman’s voice is capable of. If you’ve never heard her, follow the link. She’s gorgeous.

But enough background. We’re talking about noise levels and culture clash.

Not long ago, I attended a conference about health care, social care, and politics, which are a potent combination and should not be mixed by any but the most expert of bartenders. An amateur is likely to screw it up so badly that they’ll blow the country’s infrastructure to bits. Unfortunately, Britain’s recent governments have been sticking nursery school kids behind the bar and encouraging them to pour any old thing into whatever else they find. Which is why we felt the need for a conference.

In the afternoon, J., who was chairing the conference, tried to gather everyone back together after a break. Now, J. has a small voice and at that moment had a mic that wasn’t working. So although she spoke politely and Britishly about ending the several dozen conversations that were going on and starting the meeting again, no one stopped talking.

I do like to solve problems, and I’d helped organize the conference so I felt some sense of responsibility, and without giving it three seconds’ thought I bellowed something along the lines of, “Okay, people, let’s get back together now.”

Silence fell with all the subtlety of a grand piano smashing down from a roof top. Two men sitting behind me levitated off their chairs, then crashed back into them and giggled nervously. Not being a mind reader, I can’t say for a fact that they were critical of me for bellowing, but they were—nervous is probably a fair observation. Not sure what to do in the situation. Maybe they thought I was dangerous. Without question they thought I wasn’t British, although the accent should have given that away much earlier in the day.

It did work, though. People sat down. They turned forward to listen to J. Maybe because it gave them a reason to not look at me.

It’s like that, living in a culture you didn’t grow up in. Or it is for me. I trot along happily, thinking I’m not offending anyone, then I do something that seems perfectly natural and blast two grown men off their chairs and push a piano off the roof.

How many people did I offend or shock? All? None? Most? Some? I have no idea. I asked N. later on, and he deflected the conversation so gracefully that I didn’t realize until later than he hadn’t answered my question.

And the worst of it? I can’t help thinking it was funny, although I suspect I should be feeling bad about it.

*

I can’t end without acknowledging that Americans aren’t the only loud people on the planet. Wild Thing and I were in Hong Kong once, and when she realized she wasn’t the noisiest person in the room she fell in love with the place.

75 thoughts on “Are Americans louder than the British?

  1. I think the title of Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American” may contain an allusion to the idea that quietness in an American is perceived as unusual.

    Prejudices are often unfair.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I kept hearing the title echoing in my head as I wrote the post, and I wanted to play off it a bit but it took me off in too many other directions, so in the end I let it go. Good novel, though.

      Like

  2. Brummies (natives of Birmingham, West Midlands) talk loudly – as my non-Brummie partner often reminds me. I always notice it when I go back to the city, and especially at get-togethers with my Brummie relatives. I can’t comment on the volume levels in Birmingham, Alabama though.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved your tale of calling the floor to order, Ellen – I can just envision the shocked faces and startled reactions.

    I never realized that Americans, on the whole, are a loud culture. I often get ‘shushed’ because I’m louder than most…so I thought it was just me.

    I learned to be loud because I used to work on a shop floor in an industry that finished paper labels – if you didn’t scream above the noise of the machinery, you weren’t heard. The best description I came up with to explain the noise in a printing/finishing shop was “It’s like working inside a gigantic vacuum cleaner.”

    Liked by 1 person

      • If they absolutely couldn’t bring themselves to raise their voices, I’d suggest aggressive waving of paper scraps (which, on my old shop floor, were EVERYWHERE), throwing things, and over-exaggerated gestures.

        What I wouldn’t suggest would be to walk up to someone and touch their shoulder, unless the intention was to get said someone to jump out of their skin.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I have very little experience in this area. I’ve been to England once, and I am periodically in meetings with British participants. They seem loud enough to get attention, even when sober. I have to say that when I was in London, I tried to pay attention to my presence so I didn’t look like an American tourist. Then I met a friend, we stopped being sober, and…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I liked your humour, and stories about US /UK ‘s voices. As a Brit, even I am aware that some people here are ever-so self-effacing. Someone I know apologises when she is bumped into ! Can’t say I’ve met any very loud Americans. Do have a quietly spoken Canadian friend. That’s different, I guess ? On a flight to Alaska one time, the in-flight menu said : ‘Tea sandwiches of the British Isles’ … funny, not loudness related though.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I fear the stereotype is true. Americans are a tad louder, I do believe, than their British peers. I have no idea why that might be but you could well be onto something with Britain’s insistence on maintaining Victorian values as they pertain to being a nation of wallflowers and children being “seen and not heard”. It is with children, indeed, that I notice the difference. Having worked in education on both shores of the Atlantic, I really notice that American kids generally seem to be more keen on volume than their British counterparts. Of course, all of this is a sweeping generalisation since my oldest son has had to be told several hundred times in his life to lower his volume before he ruptures his vocal cords. Despite that, every teacher my kids have had in this country has stated that my sons are very quiet. Maybe that is the British half of them.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I can recall my first time in London, in the tube in an elevator. You could have heard a pin drop. Until two of my high school tour group got on the elevator. I was mortified. Then again, I have been known to project my voice, too. But never in an elevator!

    When I lived in Geneva, you could always tell the Americans from the Canadians — not from their accents, but from the volume. We ‘mericans are loud.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. There are plenty of loud people in the world. You are right. The British are beyond polite. They don’t like to call attention to themselves unless they are someone in the public eye. Unfortunately, the media has only added to the impression of Americans as the world’s buffoons. I like your posts, Ellen. They are refreshing. They are humorous and they make me think. Brava!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. You may well be aware of the large contingent of US servicemen and women the UK used to have, (it has dwindled now and is still dwindling) manning the NATO bases. Yes, Americans are loud when compared to most Brits – but my goodness how we LOVED them being in our everyday lives.

    Of course, there was huge discrimination against these brash boys in uniform because our mothers feared their allure for us teenagers. RAF Bentwaters and RAF Woodbridge were used as USAF Nato bases and were only a few miles away from my home town. Our pubs were full of them on a Saturday night and we were under pain of death not to talk to them. I complied – well – mostly :-) However, after I emmigrated to Canada and lived in an apartment building that housed a large number of draft dodgers – I met the long-haired hippy types, vastly different from the military lads I knew.

    I loved them all and found them so courteous and respectful. When I came home for holidays in my late teens, early 20s, I defied all orders and made many friends on the bases because the UK was just too quiet for me. I partied into the small hours out on the base and smoked weed in the barracks after being smuggled in – and no, I never compromised my own morals (well apart from the dope). Long live loudness and God Bless America – I would live there even now if I could – yes I know about DT of course but I would still go if I could – or even back to canada.

    Lovely post Ellen – made me smile!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve known plenty of quiet Americans, but also ones who I wouldn’t exactly call loud in voice, but loud in action. For instance, they would see something they like and purposefully stride towards it at the same time as exclaiming ‘wow! Look at that!” So probably the difference is that the average Brit wouldn’t, they’d think but not vocalise it.
    As for me, I have a tiny voice but even with a tiny voice I find that “shut the fuck up!” works well even in a room full of people. (Grins.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Truly. Fuck is a very loud word, even when it’s whispered.

      I just came back from a village craft sale, and a woman who sells knitted and crocheted work as well as some paintings was telling me about an American who bought her most expensive afghan and a painting with the sort of immediacy you describe, although if she said, “Wow,” I didn’t hear about it. She–the woman selling the work–swore than no one British would have been as decisive about it.

      I, on the other hand, spent a quarter of an hour waffling over whether to buy myself a brownie. In the end, I bought two and gave one to a friend. But the waffling? That seems to be part of the process for me. We don’t any of us fit the stereotypes entirely, I’d guess.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Once I read an article in the Herald Tribune called ‘Tongue-tied and shouting at foreigners’. It was about the British refusing to learn any languages and instead raising their voices higher and higher in the vain hope the natives would understand what they’re saying. So apparently they can be loud in some circumstances after all…

    Liked by 1 person

  12. . I was in Germany with a bunch of Americans. We were actually talking softly, mature, European like. We were on a tour of the Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany. Suddenly from far away we could hear a loud, almost shouting group approaching that didn’t get softer, only got louder as they approached the castle, and by then it was as if a flock of ravens had come in to destroy the quiet simplicity of the event- the noise was shocking,, like when you’re in a bar, music is playing, and you have to shout to be heard- yet there was no music playing, and everyone else was quiet. We looked aghast, AGHAST!!! at the group… YOU MEAN THAT’S HOW EUROPEANS SEE AMERICANS!!!??? Ah well… I can accept that. (Not sure Spaniards I know would accept my observation, but it is a true story!)

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Haven’t any of you ever been to Italy? or on a skiing slope with Spaniards announcing their presence from the other side of the mountain? Come on, Anglo-Saxon of any and all hues are more discreet :)

    Liked by 1 person

  14. An Australian friend told me this joke; “How can you tell when a planeload of Brits has landed on the runway? Even after the engines are switched off, you can still hear the whinging.”
    Every people has their loud moments. :).

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Gosh! I love this so much! I came back 3 weeks ago for my 3 month long-term study abroad program in the U.K. and it reminded me of my friends and I (30 Americans in the program) being the loudest people ever 😂 I love this, brings back memories

    Liked by 1 person

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