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.
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.
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.