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Sometimes expats find it difficult to handle excessive noise or silence.

I DREAD THURSDAYS, the day when the Portuguese maid comes to clean my in-laws’ house. My husband and I live in the basement, but I can hear this woman talking to herself and singing out of key from two floors away. When she talks with my mother-in-law, the decibels increase tenfold. I feel so uncomfortable with the noise that I avoid going to the kitchen. I keep a ceramic bowl and a can of soup downstairs for times like these. Loud times.

The other day I almost choked on a wheat cracker when my husband said something to his mom in Portuguese. Since he started talking suddenly in a loud voice, I jumped as if there was some emergency. It took about ten minutes for my heart rate to slow down, and he was simply asking his mom if the mail had come.

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Americans have a reputation of being loud and obnoxious abroad, but I think it really depends on what culture is being visited. We tend to be comfortable with the speech volume level we’ve grown up with, and when we encounter something different from the norm, we aren’t sure how to interpret it.

I often think my husband and his parents are fighting when they’re speaking Portuguese, but usually they are just having a normal discussion. We’ve been living at his parents’ house for nine months now, and I’m still not used to the volume level used in typical conversation. I try to use logic and tell myself, “They are not fighting. This is normal. This is just how they talk,” but I still can’t manage to convince my body to go off high alert. I get goose bumps. I can’t focus on anything, and I often retreat to a quieter place in the house.

We also come up against these cultural differences when we’re talking to each other. Most of the time when my husband is having a conversation with me, he keeps his volume level low in a typical “American style,” but when he launches into his Portuguese mode I often interpret it as him being angry or rude. I feel like he’s “raising his voice,” but at those moments he probably isn’t even talking as loud as he does with his parents.

In some countries, talking in public above a certain decibel level is a crime. A British poultry auctioneer was charged with noise pollution for speaking at a volume over 80 decibels in a public market (Poultry World, August 2006). In the US there are also regulations for how loud people can be in public places, whether talking, playing music or operating tools. Any violation can be considered as “disturbing the peace,” and others will call the police if they feel their “right” to peace and quiet is being ignored.

While living in Pakistan, I often wished I could report people for violating the quiet of residential neighborhoods. Most Pakistanis could sleep through fighter jets flying overhead, but I wake up to a quiet sneeze or a deep breath. We lived in an area of Lahore where most people had live-in servants, and when a homeowner would arrive outside his gated garage, he would blare the horn repeatedly until someone came to open the door. It didn’t matter if he came home at noon or at 2 a.m., beeping was customary.

I learned from experience never to move next to any empty plot, because if the owner decides to build on it, construction crews work during the night hours to avoid the heat. Cement grinders and jackhammers run from sunset to sunrise. The construction workers also like to blast Punjabi pop on crackling radios during their “work hours.” I remember griping, “Shouldn’t this be illegal? Isn’t there anyone we can report this to?” Our landlord’s family downstairs slept through the ruckus just fine.

I wonder if we can ever completely adjust to different noise thresholds, or if what we’ve learned to interpret as normal and abnormal volume levels stays with us even as we experience different cultures. After three years in Pakistan and almost a year in a Portuguese house, I still can’t sleep through someone quietly walking down the stairs. A friend of mine, who has been married into a Portuguese family for over ten years, says she still isn’t used to the noise either.

Community Connection

Can we adjust to louder conversation levels or longer silences, or is what we’re exposed to as children the threshold that we’ll feel comfortable with for our whole lives?

Have you ever visited a culture that was notably louder or quieter than your own? How did it make you feel, and how did you deal with it? Share in the comments section below.

Culture + Religion


About The Author

Heather Carreiro

Heather is a secondary English teacher, travel writer and editor who has lived in Morocco and Pakistan. She enjoys jamming on the bass, haggling over saris in dusty markets and cross-country jumping on horseback. Currently she's a grad student attempting to wrap her tongue around Middle English, analyze South Asian literature and eat enough to make her Portuguese mother-in-law happy. Learn more on her blog at

  • GBSNP Varma


    “I wonder if we can ever completely adjust to different noise thresholds…”

    you can never adjust to different noise thresholds, which is due to growing up in particular culture. I think our ears get tuned to a particular decibel level, and anything that’s more or less, we find jarring. Perhaps, our ears have become sensitive like teeth.

    But, in India, we feel, all these variegated sounds are just an expression of one eternal sound that plays like reverberations of a gong or Krishna’s flute along the banks of our consciousness.

    This is the article I contributed to The Hindu MetroPlus Vijayawada,A.P.

    Sprites of sound

    In James Cameron’s Avatar, small luminescent wood sprites— he calls them ‘dandelion things’— are the symbols of the ecology of Pandora, a moon of a planet called Polyphemus in the Alpha Centauri, a star system. They alight upon the avatar of Jake Sully’s (Sam Worthington) hands, feet, torso and whole body. They hang on him like dandelions and connect him to The Tree of Life.

    As in Pandora, our world has innumerable ways of reaching out to us. One is through sound. Let’s call them sound sprites; for colour, let’s call them ‘dandelion pings.’

    Our world is awash in sounds: barks, clicks, clinks, clanks, plinks, crackles, groans, drones and cries. Pops, screeches, splashes, plashes; shrieks, thwacks, thumps; the stomp of the feet down the hall; the hiss of the pressure cooker that occasionally and literally blows its top; the whiny, tinny labour of that dog-gone mixer; the raspy, gravelly voice of the neighbour’s wife; the knocks on doors that feel like blows of jackhammer; the boom of stove when lighted; the drip-drip torture of a leaky tap; the acuity of a cat’s mewo, the soothing whoosh of brooks; the chesty thumps from a nearby loudspeaker; the calls of peripatetic vendors; the muffled moan of dogs feeling the chill, the eerie silence of certain freaking places; the haunting ply of wintry breeze at night. And deep, if only for a sec, interval between them.

    In traffic junctions, we feel a crazy maelstrom of noise. “The noise of traffic gives me a headache,” says Ramana, who is, we can safely say by the amount of time he spends on his bike, a repository of all types of headaches. It’s a vortex of noise. They tease; they rake; they give us joy; they make us puke out.

    Our visual culture makes us oblivious to soundscapes we inhabit. By stepping out of our house, we might be coming out of a microclimate of familiar, if controlled, cacophony and hitting a big boulder of sound right in front of the gate ,or passing through a sphere of sonic boom on a certain stretch of a road.

    “We really don’t listen to every day sounds,” says Ramesh, a guitar player. “They are what inspire me.”

    Some sounds swoop in, peck at the tympanum and careen away. Some feel like they are inside the head, knocking around the skull, rolling out from ear to ear, feeding a heavy dose of steroids to our neurons. Kind of like spooky psychoacoustics of Dolby sound system. Quite a few burn themselves into consciousness.

    “I can never hear the scratching, scraping of things,” says Vasu, a student. “It stirs my stomach and it makes me feel uneasy inside.”

    Some sounds have broad cultural context: in this Sankranti season, the rhythmic clank of cymbals, the insistent stream of notes of senai, the metronomic tinkling of bells of the gangireddu, the twangs of tambura, the folksy voice of Haridasu. “I love this season for its atmosphere,” says Roopa, an English literature student. “It’s not harsh, the sounds feel euphonic, and I enjoy this,”

    Sounds are as much about us as they are ever about themselves — variegated expressions of the eternal sound that plays forever like reverberations of a gong along the banks of consciousness.

    • Heather Carreiro

      “Sensitive like teeth” – interesting way to think about it! Thanks for sharing your story as well Varma.

  • Jamison

    Noise can vary by family quite a bit. When I would visit a grade school friend of mine at his house I would laugh because his whole family talked loudly. My family is very quiet and talks at what I would call a normal volume.

    • Heather Carreiro

      Yes, even within cultures families and individuals also have different noise thresholds. My mom always said my dad’s side of the family was loud, but now compared to Duarte’s family they don’t seem so loud anymore!

  • Meagan

    There are some days when noise bothers me abroad, and some days when it doesn’t. But when the Filipinos here start singing bad karaoke at 8 a.m. on Saturday-that’s when it bugs me!

    There’s a little karaoke hut next door to the house where I’m staying. Anyone can use it, at any time of day. And it’s LOUD. I can hear it from every room in this gigantic house, blaring the ‘classics’- Gloria Estefan, Oasis, Nirvana, The Spice Girls, Beyonce, and Tom Jones.

    Every song I once enjoyed is now ruined haha. At home, karaoke is reserved for drunken celebration. Here, it’s a reason to get up at 7 a.m. and wake up all the neighbours.

    • Heather Carreiro

      Karaoke at 7 in the morning? Wow. I thought throat clearing in India at 5 am was bad (made me want to puke), but that doesn’t sound like a nice wake up call either.

  • Molly

    I find this amusing, only because just this morning I was awoken by construction in the apartment next to me. Only, I think its the apartment next to us, but it honestly could’ve been an apartment three over. When I got home from work last night (with a miserable migraine), they were at it. Of course, I have it lucky. My community enforces the quiet hours, and they only can work from 8 am- 9 pm. I have friends who aren’t so lucky.

    In China, I often think people are yelling at me or screaming into their phones because they speak so loud. A couple weeks ago, the electricity company ladies came and were yelling at me about a late payment (from before I moved in). And, by yelling, I mean speaking at that normal ear throbbing volume.

    • Heather Carreiro

      I was laughing thinking about your electric company ladies talking to you. It’s so loud you think they’re being rude, but they’re not, they’re just talking normally. Let me know if you ever get used to it!

  • Muhammad Moosa

    i think it’s more individual thing than being cultural,,
    i can’t sync with my brother, he speaks so loud, even when i mention it ,he can’t help himself, he will just wait 5 seconds and tries again with only changing his facial expressions, thinking now he is talking with normal threshold,then i pretend that it’s ok, while actually it’s still not ok.
    and some people including my brother :p , they talk on cell phone like they are standing 1 mile away trying to talk politely without a cell phone.

  • Anne M

    Ooh, Muhammad beat me to the punch, I was going to bring up cellphone etiquette too! I’ve noticed that in a lot of East Asian countries, people cup their hands over their mouths when they use cellphones in public, so the whole coffeeshop/bus/park doesn’t have to hear their conversation. How I wish North Americans would do the same…

    I know exactly what you mean about mistaking a loud conversation for an argument, Heather. My friend in university used to have booming, wall-rattling conversations with her mother on the phone in Polish. Though she always sounded angry to me, she insisted that they were just chit-chatting about banal stuff. I can imagine your confusion, but as always, your dilemma has produced a great read for the rest of us.

  • Hannah

    I find that I learn to tolerate a different country’s natural noise level, but never become completely immune to it being different. I think Americans are especially sensitive about noise when it comes to sleep. That’s the time when our defenses are naturally low and coping becomes more difficult.

    Here in Turkey I can handle the Arab-inspired volume just fine… until it comes time for bed. That’s when I start cursing the so-called ‘lullabies’ Turkish parents sing to their children, which, to me, sound like shrill cries of pain.

    I’ve found that most Turks also like to fall asleep with the TV going full-blast, which makes sleep for me nearly impossible. Come morning all is well again… That is, if I can make it through the night!

    • Heather Carreiro

      Oh I totally understand. The night time is the worst. Sometimes during the day I can adjust (sometimes…) but at night it’s nearly impossible. I have lots of ear plugs.

  • Mary R

    Arriving at LAX airport recently from Japan, the first thing that struck me was the noise level of Americans at baggage claim!

    A California girl myself, it shouldn’t have been that jarring, but two years abroad did sensitize me to it again.

    • Heather

      Hmm maybe I should consider moving to Japan…

  • ben keys

    It’s quite a relief to hear your Noisy Tale, Heather. 
    I thought perhaps it was just me being intolerant – I hadn’t considered the cultural aspect to noise levels, coming from ‘quiet’ Australia to Extremely Loud Spain.

    One problem we found living in Mallorca (and I’m sure many parts of Europe) was that bedrooms were often built at the front of the house, so your window opened onto the street.
    This was fine except for the Spaniards’ penchant for staying out til all hours, then clip-clopping down the cobbled street in heels before stopping outside our window to chat or sing at 5am.

    My flatmate’s solution was usually to fling open the shutters and stand nude, silhouetted in the window, while politely suggesting that they “F**k off”. It rarely worked.

  • Lucilla Ritterstein

    Dear Heather Carreiro,

    Growing up in a naturally loud environment, the unhappiness, depression, and sometimes neurosis that took over me when I moved to the States was due to now living in a very quiet community. The most natural background daily noises are considered a violation of others and provoke an immediate call to the police where I live now. It took me years to overcome the hardship of living in an (in my opinion) unhealthily quiet community.

    Singing, conversing, laughing, playing music are signs of Euphoria, and a healthy sign of human beings connecting and bonding. Unwanted silence is in my opinion more detrimental than unwanted noise. The hostility by Americans to loudness is a direct sign of one of the globally recognized pathologies of the American culture.

    If you have married outside of your culture, into say a “louder” culture, I recommend you take the chance to embark on the wonder of sounds by communal cultures, such as all romance cultures, all african cultures, all middle eastern cultures, and most easter cultures. There are great physiological and psychological advantages to living that way, way more advantages than living quiet.

    Your new portuguese family is your chance for a better and healthier life of stronger bonds and probably a healthier physiology for your self.

    Much love


    • Nicole Loli

      Actually I agree, nothing is more disturbing to me than dead silence

    • Agus Lo

      loved it

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