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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ugly Foreign Speakers

We've all heard of the term "Ugly American", an American who makes an ass of himself in a foreign country by doing things like talking too loudly, expecting everyone to understand English, and acting entitled. I've witnessed Ugly Americans in action during my time spent in Germany, and it's not pretty. In fact, during my first study abroad in Berlin, I was slightly ashamed to let people know I was American because of the reputation of Ugly Americans. (During my second study abroad in Kiel, I was no longer ashamed of being an American, because [a] I didn't choose my nationality, [b] I don't fancy myself an Ugly American, and [c] America may have its problems, but every other country has problems too.)

Well, I've noticed that Americans may not be the only people who qualify as Ugly Americans. I'm thinking in particular about my Indian neighbors next door who talk so loudly I can hear them through my bedroom walls when they are in their living room. I can also identify them when I'm sitting in my living room and they're ascending the stairs in the courtyard outside. And worst of all, they've taken to standing on the front walkway of my apartment complex, which just so happens to be right outside my bedroom window, at all hours of the night and day, talking and laughing loudly.

Now, I've had problems with other neighbors talking beneath my window at 4:AM before, but these guys are noticeably louder. I also had never before heard anyone through my bedroom walls before these guys moved in, and I've lived in this apartment for 6 years. I've gone over and knocked on their door before, asking them to quiet down late at night, and I've opened my window to ask them to quiet down when they stand outside my window, and they do oblige, but the problem continues.

I think the problem really boils down to the fact that they are speaking a minority language, and so they turn off the normal conscious volume meter that people employ when they know they can be overheard, and thus understood. But since it's a pretty good bet that no one else is going to understand their speech, the usual impetus for monitoring their volume is absent.

I have noticed that people in America speaking languages other than English are often louder than their English-speaking counterparts. Memorably, E and I were recently in the foyer of a Greek restaurant waiting to be seated, and we were sitting on a couch amongst a large group of Greek-speakers talking very loudly around us. It was rather distracting and uncomfortable. I think if these same people were instead Americans in the foyer of a Parisian restaurant, the French patrons would have easily thought of them as Ugly Americans.

So I think this problem isn't really a matter of someone's nationality so much as a matter of whether a person is mindlessly failing to monitor their volume because they think no one can understand them. What do you think? Anyone else noticed this?

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3 comments:

Trovan said...

I know exactly what you mean. At my last job there were several Indians that were always speaking loudly in Hindi (at least, I think it is Hindi).

When I was in Brazil, people generally assumed I was one of those rude Americans, and it surprised them when I spoke to them in Portuguese.

Nithya said...

I actually got to your blog by randomly googling "why are indians so loud?" after a fairly embarressing night with my parents. I think if you went to India you'd understand that the volume control factory setting for normal conversation is about twice as loud as here in the UK. I think it's more a cultural thing than minority language thing. I speak quietly and when I was in America I did actually find Florida a very loud place whereas New York wasn't (unless someone was angry). You don't hear Parisians shouting in french here, not because there aren't French immigrants but because they keep it down. Lovely.

So yes, I reckon what is considered a polite volume varies greatly from one place to another, sort of like personal space and table manners.

Nithya said...

I actually got to your blog by randomly googling "why are indians so loud?" after a fairly embarressing night with my parents. I think if you went to India you'd understand that the volume control factory setting for normal conversation is about twice as loud as here in the UK. I think it's more a cultural thing than minority language thing. I speak quietly and when I was in America I did actually find Florida a very loud place whereas New York wasn't (unless someone was angry). You don't hear Parisians shouting in french here, not because there aren't French immigrants but because they keep it down. Lovely.

So yes, I reckon what is considered a polite volume varies greatly from one place to another, sort of like personal space and table manners.

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