Ask Language Log: Loud Americans?

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From Federico Escobar:

An old but ongoing comment/joke among several Spanish speakers I know says that English speakers are particularly loud. It's a gross generalization, I know, but one borne out by countless times in which the voices booming over everyone else's in a restaurant comes from the one table with American tourists. A friend says that she feels that Americans can't help but shouting when they talk.

So, the silliness aside, does this hold water? Would this be, on average, true of English speakers or at least of American speakers of English? A friend theorized off-the-cuff that it may be because of the sound system in English, which perhaps needs a higher volume to tell the phonemes apart than, say, Spanish. Is that at all possible?

I don't know of any attempts to test the idea that different phonological systems might lead to different preferred conversational volumes across contexts. But I'd be willing to bet against this hypothesis. Every culture has many resources to adjust the rate of information transmission in speech, both on the scale of individual conversations and and the scale of historical development. Different languages seem to afford similar rates of information transmission per unit time in similar contexts — thus the investigation cited here concludes that English has higher per-syllable entropy than Spanish, and accordingly has fewer average syllables per word, and on average fewer syllables per unit time. The Lombard reflex means that everyone tends to raise their voice as background noise increases, and it's also true that everyone tends to produce more information-dense material more clearly and loudly, but there's no reason to think that these tendencies should affect Americans more than others.

I also don't know of any attempts to test the stereotype that people of one variety or another talk more loudly in public places.

While not all social stereotypes are false, my general observation is that the process of social stereotype formation is remarkably insensitive to real-world statistics, because it follows the rules of emotionally-loaded confirmation bias. It works like this:

  1. You consider the hypothesis that people of type X tend to have property P. You might start with this idea because "everybody knows it", or because you happen to observe an instance of X exhibiting P.
  2. You have a strong emotional reaction (positive or negative) to type X people or to the attribute P or both.
  3. Now when you observe Xs exhibiting P you think to yourself, "Yes! Just as I thought!" And now the combination of X and P is emotionally loaded, even if it wasn't to start with.
  4. When you come across Xs not exhibiting P, you don't register it to the same degree, because why would you?
  5. When you come across non-Xs exhibiting P, you don't associate it with your hypothesis, because why would you?

So your belief that people of type X tend to have property P gets gradually stronger. (Of course, some people just start and end with "everybody knows it", but you're an empirical sort of person…)

I'm just as prone to this process as anyone else. Here's an example. There's a kind of behavior at conference and workshop coffee breaks that annoys me — some people take their coffee or tea in hand, stand with their backside a few inches from the table where the beverages are available, and engage in an animated discussion with a knot of others, thus preventing anyone else from getting at the beverages. At a certain point a few years ago, I formed the impression that people of nationality X were especially prone to this behavior. I would observe an instance of Xs blocking the beverage table, and think to myself, "Those damn Xs again."  But I immediately recognized this as an example of social stereotype formation, and so I passed the time at a few such gatherings by testing the hypothesis statistically, counting the nationalities involved in table-blocking and comparing to the estimated distribution of nationalities at the events. It soon became clear that the Xs were innocent, or at least no more guilty than anyone else.

Now maybe it's true that Americans tend to be loud, or that Americans tend to be loud in restaurants, or that tourists tend to be loud in restaurants, or that American tourists in certain sorts of restaurants in certain countries tend to be loud, or …

But even if all or most of those things were  mostly or entirely false, an honest observer might still vividly remember "countless times in which the voices booming over everyone else's in a restaurant comes from the one table with American tourists", solely due to emotionally-loaded confirmation bias.

A few previous LLOG posts about similar issues.

"The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming" 227/2007
"'At the end of the day' not management-speak" 9/26/2009
"Annals of generic statements" 12/21/2009
"Why men don't listen" 4/4/2010
"'Like' youth and sex" 6/28/2011
"An invented statistic returns" 2/22/2013
"Impactful" 8/7/2013
"Combating stereotypes — with stereotypes" 10/17/2014



  1. Cim said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 9:38 am

    If the languages in question, in this case English and Spanish, contain different phonemes or intonations in enough quantity to make the overall sound of a sentence or two of them quite different, this difference could account for what makes the spoken English stick out like a sore thumb, as it were, to the listener's ear, even in a crowded context where it's a minority.

    I've also noticed English being very easy to pick out of a crowd of spoken Swedish or Finnish on occasion, which also sound very different from English.

    But it could be even simpler than that – maybe the lone sample of another language would stick out as long as it was in hearing range, without any necessity of strong differentiating features.

    [(myl) Yes, sound from a few people speaking a different language might be perceptually salient just because of different acoustic texture, so to speak — we can add this to the long list of reasons why there might be a real effect behind this stereotype. But my point is that such social stereotypes can seem very real even when confirmation bias is the only factor reinforcing them.]

  2. ngage92 said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 9:51 am

    I get noticeably louder in Serbo-Croatian, which I use only with my family and a few friends. Not only that, but people always get the impression I'm in a fight, especially if they hear me speaking it on the phone. Some of that is no doubt cultural as the Balkans are generally loud and rowdy, but some of it is probably inherent in the language.

    [(myl) There are certainly cultural differences in the interpretation of vocal characteristics, in production as well as in perception. But this sounds like it might be a difference in communicative context more than a difference in language.]

  3. Vicki said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 10:01 am

    The "American tourists" example suggests another thing that might be feeding into this: tourists may care less about being loud/distracting because they're among strangers. Even if the other people in the restaurant are bothered, they'll be complaining about "those tourists," not telling everyone that Cousin Jim got drunk and shouted at the waitress, or passing along what Sandy said about his boss.

    [(myl) Indeed, and tourists might tend to be different in other ways — more aroused, more intoxicated, more full of things to say…]

  4. Athel Cornish-Bowden said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 10:36 am

    I found the starting point of this discussion surprising, because every time I go into, say, a university eating area or coffee room in Spain I'm struck by the deafening din. It's not because they're speaking Spanish because it's not the same in other Spanish-speaking countries I've spent significant time in, most notably Chile. They're noisy because they're Spanish, not because they're speaking Spanish.

  5. Bob Ladd said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 11:04 am

    I agree at least somewhat with Athel Cornish-Bowden, except that Italian is the non-English language I'm familiar with. I'm certainly aware of the stereotype about loud Americans, and I think some of the explanations advanced above (confirmation bias, Tourists Behaving Badly, etc.) have some element of truth. Nevertheless, my experience, after thirty years of hosting academic dinner parties with 6 or 8 participants – sometimes in English, sometimes in Italian – is that the Italian groups generally seem louder. I finally came to the conclusion that an important contributor to this apparent difference is the relatively greater acceptability of overlapping speech in Italian conversation compared to English. That is, at any given moment in such a group, there are likely to be more people talking if everything is in Italian than if everything is in English, so the group as a whole is on average louder.

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 11:28 am

    Athel Cornish-Bowden: Obviously the only possible explanation is that there are more Americans in university dining halls in Spain than in Chile.

    If someone were going to try to test your suggestion, they'd have to control for the size of the room, the number of people in it, the acoustics, the proportions of students and faculty and staff, and probably other things I'm not thinking of.

  7. Athel Cornish-Bowden said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 1:04 pm

    OK Jerry, you know me well enough to know that my statement was anecdotal, without any supporting scientific evidence. However, it's something I've noticed many times, and when I was in Spain a few weeks ago (Barcelona: so if that refugee from justice Mr Puigdemont gets his way it won't be in Spain for much longer) I mentioned it in a group of Spanish people: nobody thought my observation was incorrect.

  8. Tom Dawkes said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 1:04 pm

    I remember discussing 20 years ago with a bilingual English/Yemeni-Arabic student the acoustic impression given by Arabic speakers. She agreed that Arabic really did seem to require more effort than English, and suggested that it was in part due to the emphatic and pharyngeal consonants of Arabic.

    I have also been conscious how loud a group of Greek-speaking students can appear: I recall having a group come into the library I was in charge of and their talk — not at all shouting — seemed much louder and more penetrating than a similar group of English-speakers would have been. So I said "σιγα σιγα!" [gently, gently!] to them, and they took it in good part.

    And I have remarked to my daughter — married to an Italian, with two bilingual daughters — that Italians often seemed to be arguing even when they were just chatting!

  9. cliff arroyo said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 1:20 pm

    My impressionistic anecdotal evidence is that Americans don't speak especially loudly but American English cuts through other human language sounds like a knife making them more audible than some…

    I once heard that even large orchestras only have one or two oboe players because the sound cuts through the orchestra. I think maybe Americans are linguistic oboes….

  10. cliff arroyo said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 1:30 pm

    An example of what I mean, some years ago an Australian I knew was on a train in mainland Europe and could clearly hear and understand a couple of Americans in the next compartment.
    He said they weren't that loud but their voices were somehow clearly audible over (or through?) the train sounds in ways that other languages, and types of English, he was familiar with weren't.

  11. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 4:12 pm

    My attempts to eavesdrop on Japanese tourists have been much less successful than my attempts to eavesdrop on Germans, Italians, French, Spaniards, Arabs, or indeed Americans. They just won't speak up.

  12. mdhughes said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 4:20 pm

    There's also interaction distance: Americans stand further apart than most Europeans and Latin Americans, so have to speak louder in conversation.

    It can be entertaining to watch Europeans "chase" Americans around a room trying to optimize their interaction distances.

  13. David Eddyshaw said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 4:26 pm

    (Except on one occasion when I was overtaken by a party of Japanese schoolgirls in Cambridge; unfortunately two-thirds of the words spoken seemed just to be "Sutekiiiii!!!")

  14. David Morris said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 5:00 pm

    A long time ago, some friends and I (Australians) got very noisy in a souvenir shop in New Zealand. After some time, I said, just as loudly, 'Sshh … we'll give American tourists a bad reputation'. (As if New Zealand souvenir shop staff can't tell Australians from Americans!)

  15. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 7:22 pm

    A small sample, but I know several English speakers who say that Hispanics and Blacks are too loud.

  16. CD said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 8:47 pm

    Agreed that it's unlikely that some languages are inherently noisier, but there is a separate question of *tourist* behavior: a tendency to ignore local sensibilities, aggressively not-blend, and overdo having a good time.

  17. postageincluded said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 10:46 pm

    The question this raises for me is whether I'd notice the loudest voices in the restaurant if they if they weren't distinctive in some way. I suspect that if they weren't, they'd just blend into the general hubbub and remain unremarked.

  18. Anthony said,

    November 25, 2017 @ 10:48 pm

    Are aspirated stops louder (or perceived as louder) than unaspirated?

  19. Rubrick said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 1:08 am


  20. Chas Belov said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 3:11 am

    I've been told by a native Chinese speaker (not sure which Chinese) that Cantonese speech is so loud that it sounds like they're fighting even when they aren't and that Shanghainese is so quiet that you can't tell that they're fighting even when they are. I have not made any attempt to test this, so won't attempt to speak to its veracity or lack thereof, and, living in San Francisco, my access to Cantonese speakers is much more statistically valid than my access to Shanghainese speakers.

  21. Chris said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 4:51 am

    After living in Spain for the first ten years of his life, my bilingual grandson moved to England. When he was settling in to his new school, the other pupils asked him "Tom, why do you always talk so loud?" Tom said "NO I DON'T". But after a while he realised that English conversation is usually several decibels lower than Spanish, and adjusted his speech accordingly.

    The following summer, he went back to Spain to visit some of his old friends there. After a while, they said (in Spanish, of course) "GREAT TO SEE YOU AGAIN, TOM, BUT WHY ARE YOU TALKING SO QUIETLY?"

  22. James Wimberley said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 8:58 am

    Bob Ladd on overlapping speech. Acceptability may be affected by family size. My first wife was an only child, and at the typical family meal, everybody spoke in turn. I have two siblings, so we found simultaneous speech normal. To her, it was inconsiderate. Mediterranean families more often have grandparents and other relatives present, at least in stereotype.

    I've read that in Finland, silence is acceptable at table. If you don't have anything interesting to say, don't say anything. How do Finnish tourists behave in Italian restaurants?

  23. boynamedsue said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 9:54 am

    1. As a British English speaker, Peninsular Spanish sounds loud to me.

    2. Americans sound loud in public places, especially restaurants.

    3. Spanish speakers do not sound loud in restaurants.

    4. Even British English speakers sound louder than Spanish people in Spanish restaurants.

    5. Spanish urbanistic norms mean that space in Spanish cities is at a premium.

    6. Spanish restaurant tables are a lot closer together than they would be in England or the US.

    I think I've worked out what is going on here.

  24. Rodger C said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 12:39 pm

    I spent the 70s shuttling between home in West Virginia and grad school in Indiana (many students from the Chicago area). In WV I always had to endure a day or so of "Stop yelling!", and in IN, "Stop mumbling!"

  25. ngage92 said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 3:03 pm

    Going in the other direction, I find the British reputation for orderly queuing to be wholly unearned. People cut lines lines and push all the time without shame.

    Also, on the language thing – it occurs to me that most people, non-native English speakers especially, could not distinguish Americans from Canadians by sound, but of course there is no "loud Canadian" stereotype, so it gets pinned on Americans.

  26. Bill Scott said,

    November 26, 2017 @ 6:36 pm

    Could it be that the loud Americans that Spanish-speakers hear are, in fact, younger than the other people in the room? I find that young people speak louder than older people in public places, not just restaurants. And young people tend to drink more quickly, not necessarily more, than their older compatriots. I remember that the loudest tourists I heard in Europe were German tourists in Barcelona – and they were young guys celebrating a birthday/upcoming wedding. So, ya, they were loud.

  27. Sergio B said,

    November 27, 2017 @ 1:03 am

    Such interesting linguistic considerations! I just wonder how much of culture is mixed up in our perceptions of language, and the original post about confirmation bias relates directly to this theory.

    Maybe because of other stereotypes for Americans, they also get pinned with the "loud" stereotype. They are definitely more encouraged to say what's on their mind and express one's opinions, so Americans may (be socially conditioned to) have something to say about everything. Is it such a leap to go from there to saying they're loud, if even the first presumption was something inherited from a popularized worldview? Even our politics are "loud." ("Americans are so opinionated, trying to 'save' other countries!" "Did you know how large the sizes are in the US and how much energy they consume?" "American highways are so spacious," etc. etc.) Then it's very easy to call an English speaker a loud, crass American. The world hears English speakers and about English speakers constantly, whether they like it or not. A lot of emotions –> a lot of confirmation bias.

  28. Christian Weisgerber said,

    November 27, 2017 @ 8:24 am


    Are aspirated stops louder (or perceived as louder) than unaspirated?

    In the restaurant setting, English also cuts through a German background even though both languages have an overall similar phonology, including a similar distribution of aspirated stops. I think it's really just that a different language stands out.

  29. Christian Peter Johnson said,

    November 27, 2017 @ 10:05 am

    Living in Hong Kong, but being almost completely incompetent in Cantonese, I wonder if there's another explanation: The ubiquitousness of American English through mass media makes it more familiar, and possibly harder to drown out mentally, than other languages or even other dialects of English.

    I've thought of this going home on public transit. Loud Canto rarely annoys me because I never know what someone's talking about. But American-accented English bothers me at volumes that I suspect are objectively much lower. Given how many people speak at least some English, and how widely influential American media (still) is, people may perceive American speakers as louder simply because they can understand it better if their practice exposure is through movies, TV shows, etc.

  30. Chandra said,

    November 27, 2017 @ 3:10 pm

    Canadian here, and while I was on an 8-month round-the-world trip, I could almost always tell whether a particular group of North American tourists was from the U.S. rather than Canada by the volume of their speech, even before getting close enough to pick up differences in accent. And I have had many similar experiences here in Canada, on trains, public transit, etc. Yes, there are certainly times I hear loud Canadians (and probably other times I fail to hear quiet Americans) but there are enough instances of "Oh those people are loud" followed by "…and they have American accents / are talking about the U.S." that I doubt it's entirely due to confirmation bias.

  31. Peter Erwin said,

    November 28, 2017 @ 6:32 am


    … I could almost always tell whether a particular group of North American tourists was from the U.S. rather than Canada by the volume of their speech, even before getting close enough to pick up differences in accent.

    Since American outnumber Canadians almost ten to one, that experience is pretty much exactly what you'd expect if there were no difference between the loudness of American and Canadian tourists. So that's not exactly convincing evidence, even if we leave out the possibility of confirmation bias.

  32. Chandra said,

    November 28, 2017 @ 2:48 pm

    @Peter Erwin:

    Since I didn't relate the frequency of loud vs. quiet groups I encountered, I'm not sure how you can correlate it with a ratio of American vs. Canadian tourists.

  33. Matthew McIrvin said,

    November 28, 2017 @ 11:34 pm

    @mdhughes: Once I had a conversation at a bus stop with a person who had just arrived from Sri Lanka, and I recall his natural conversation distance being the shortest of anyone I had ever met. I kept backing up without thinking about it, and after a short time I realized he was pushing me down the block.

  34. B.Ma said,

    December 2, 2017 @ 12:47 am

    I only skimmed all the comments but nobody seems to have suggested that perhaps it isn't Americans who are more likely to be loud, but that loud people are more likely to be American (at least in places that are frequented by Americans and non-Americans in a ratio that doesn't mean any person chosen at random is likely to be American).

    For example I recently visited Iceland and New Zealand, places where there is a good mixture of visitors from many countries, and my anecdotal observations were that loud people tended to be American.

    I also find (Iberian/European) Spanish speakers to be loud but this may be due to the factor mentioned above that I am trying and failing to understand them so it is more noticeable (I can get by in basic Spanish if people speak slowly, but when they are quick-firing at each other I feel that I should be able to catch a few words but I usually can't). While if people are speaking loudly in e.g. Hindi or Greek where I know fewer than ten words, I can easily tune them out.

  35. Phil Ramsden said,

    December 3, 2017 @ 11:34 am

    If you think American speakers of English *aren't* loud, try continuing to do the Guardian cryptic crossword when a group of US tourists have just got into your London Tube carriage. #anecdotalftw #alsoworkswithitalians

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