I recently watched a video, purportedly a spoof, where an Indian aunty adopts a hectoring tone and shows us how ginger tea is brewed back home in India. I say ‘back home’ because the woman is standing in an American kitchen, heaping much unbridled derision on Americans. Personally, I found the clip loud, semi-offensive (to Americans, that is) and decidedly unfunny. But I was in the minority in the WhatsApp group where this was shared, others finding it downright hilarious.
Which is why I have to say at the very outset that this is my opinion, not the findings of a study on Indians and their decibel preferences.
For years, Indians have been conflated with Italians. As someone who has done a fair bit of travelling, I have come to the conclusion that this is a wrong comparison. The Italians do burst out into laughter, chide their children lovingly and loudly, use their hands to gesture wildly, but they are not as consistently loud as we are. Like the Spanish, the Italians are given to bursts of exuberance, after which they subside into softer tones.
It is the Chinese who are as loud as us. Streets in towns and cities of China resound with the clamour of many voices expressing themselves vociferously. Outside China too, the Chinese tourist is usually a loud individual. One ready to fight for her right to shout, as I saw, all the way over in Bosnia-Herzegovina, when a Bosnian tour guide, whose account of the Mostar war was being drowned out, gently chided a Chinese woman for yelling across the public square. The woman retorted, who are you to tell me not to yell, then went back to, well, yelling animatedly and happily at her cohort.
I’ve given this matter of our loudness some thought. It isn’t always exuberance or excitement; many a time we speak loudly to assert ourselves in a situation we don’t perceive as favourable to us. I read somewhere that feeling ignored causes the same chemical effect as that of an injury. And there you have it. We pitch our voices higher and farther than people of other nationalities because it is our way of saying, “look at me, I’m here, on the same train, in the same restaurant, in the same elevator as you folk”. Our loudness is a way of levelling the field for ourselves.
Then, it is about braggadocio. There is absolutely no point in travelling, in eating at a seven-star restaurant, in attending an exclusive event, if no one sees us doing so, if no one looks on with envy. No humble-bragging for us, thank you; and subtlety just doesn’t cut it, so we need to bring our wealth and power-related achievements to everyone’s notice.
The third angle is to prove to people just how at home we are in alien surroundings. The noise we make as we dance in the streets, the shrieks of delight we emit, the stentorian manner in which we ask for achaar to be passed to us, it’s all a show-and-tell that shows and tells that we own the moment, the place, the situation.
Maybe it’s a good thing the world has become used to us and our over-loud ways. Because let’s say it loud and clear, we ain’t gonna change anytime soon.
Sheila Kumar is an author. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.