Friday, July 22, 2011

Using Your Inside Voice

The other day I wrote that Americans should use their inside voice when abroad. It was meant to be a smart ass comment that was halfway funny. Mostly because it is a stereotype that lives on and sometimes is based on a kernel of truth. However, I thought I should explain what I meant also, not because I received any scathing e-mails, but because behind the smartass comment there was something I meant. Surprisingly, there usually is.

Americans tend to be loud when abroad. Not overly so, but loud enough. It’s not just that though. Lots of people are loud. Lots of people make fools of themselves. Lots of people call attention to themselves. That’s not reserved just for Americans. I’ve seen countless languages do things that would make their mothers cringe. Or at least make my mother cringe.

But other languages can get away with things on a different level. It does not give them a license to act an ass, but it does give them license to say things that may be rude. Part of the reason an inside voice is so useful for an American is the simple fact that those Americans tend to be speaking English. And a vast population abroad speaks English. And when a vast international population speaks English, those little comments you make that you think you can get away with because you are abroad. Gross, it stinks here. Look at that person. Do I really have to eat that? Why don’t they do it this way? Those comments are understood. By a lot of people.

So whether they are loud or not, they are heard. Is it fair? Probably not. The group of Finnish guys may be saying the exact same things. I don’t know. I don’t speak Finnish. Chances are that you don’t either. And neither does the vast majority of the population.

While in Istanbul, I ran across a group of Americans. Probably a few years younger than me. I did not talk to them. They were standing outside a large Turkish bathhouse. They were talking. Someone in the group I was with made a comment about the stereotypically loud Americans. They weren’t. Not in my opinion. They were no louder than the other groups of tourists right outside of the bathhouse. The difference was they were in the middle of the classic tourist bitch session. We’ve all been there. I’ve seen Swedes do it in Mumbai, I’ve seen Canadians do it in Sweden, I’ve seen Americans do it all over. It’s a great way to blow off some steam when the homesickness hits. The difference between Swedes doing it in Mumbai and Americans doing it in Istanbul is that there aren’t a whole lot of Swedish speakers in Mumbai. There are a whole lot of English speakers in Istanbul. So all those rude comments were understood. Loud and clear. Minus the loud.

It’s frustrating to see this happen, it’s frustrating to see stereotypes beget stereotypes. Some of them deserved, I won’t deny that. Some are not. But when traveling abroad, it helps to be aware of those stereotypes. Because that inside voice may not break down the loud American stereotype, but it sure as hell will help. Even if your inside voice is understood by your surroundings as well.

Welcome to Europe. And inside voices.


  1. Do you have any news on the Norway shooting and bombing?
    We are all shocked, just extremely shocked and mourn for all the dead and wounded.

  2. Yes that obviously hits very close to Sweden. The scale of it is unheard of in all Scandinavia I would say. Very interested to hear about the Swedish reaction to this.

  3. Speaking of American stereotypes, here's a little something from an actual American (born in Maryland, currently living in Massachusetts):

    Enjoy! :)

  4. As a Canadian I can tell you that Americans DO speak with a louder volume to their voices. Anytime I am in the States I am amazed at the sheer volume of the voices around me. Generally they are loud people. That being said, I think your idea that the English language does stand out due to the number of those who understand it is bang on. This is a good reason to use manners in public: speak softly, say nothing rude and keep the gripes for behind closed doors. I am well travelled and I always hope this approach makes me a good visitor. I love Sweden and hope to return someday soon for a visit. Your blog is awesome, I have spent many enjoyable hours reading it. Keep it up!

  5. Yeah, just be polite is probably a decent rule to follow no matter where you are abroad