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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.