I remember when I used to live in Edinburgh I would commute to work on the bus. There was one couple that often ended up on the same bus as me in the mornings. They would talk with each other for the whole ride into town.
The thing was, I couldn’t hear a word they were saying. I mean, I could barely make out any snippets of their conversations. One time I even sat directly next to them, but I still couldn’t manage to eavesdrop. Not because I couldn’t decipher their Scottish accents, but because they spoke with each other so quietly and softly.
When I lived in London several years later, I ended up dating and moving in with a mild-mannered British guy for a while. He was very soft spoken. A lot of times I just couldn’t catch what he was saying and I would have to ask him to repeat himself. I never got used to it, even though we were together for 1.5 years. I can’t count the number of times were were out together at a restaurant, sat across from each other at the dinner table, and he’d tell me something (probably something sweet and loving) and I’d say “What?” and he would mumble it again and I’d say “What?” and lean forward to catch it. It ruined the moment.
Of course there are the drunken louts yelling on their way home on a Friday night, but for the most part, I found British people to be very quiet. Not so for the Americans. (Surprise.) This has taken some getting used to. I constantly have to restrain my urge to shush people.
I was in a café the other day, trying to work, and a guy sitting behind me was talking on the phone SO loudly that I could no longer concentrate on my work. I wondered if he was on a long distance call on a bad phone line and had to yell to be understood. When I turned around to give him the evil eye, I realized he wasn’t on the phone, but was talking to his friend who was sat immediately across from him at the table! (Who, poor guy, wasn’t saying anything at all, but just quietly listening to this booming megaphone.) I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from telling the guy how utterly needless it was to speak at such a volume to someone sat two feet away from you. I wanted to reason with him and show him the fallacy of his ways.
Of course, Americans are hardly the only people in the world that are loud. I can tell you that Liberians are plenty loud, especially when they are arguing; Tunisians are hardly quiet, particularly when they are on the phone; and Somalis are, well, just loud all the time. Many other Europeans have the reputation of being loud (the Italians are the first that come to mind). But if someone is speaking loudly in a foreign language that you don’t know or understand, you just kind of block it out. But when it’s your own language, you can’t help but listen and follow the conversation. And resist the urge to snap, “Shut up!”