Is it just me? When I am in a restaurant for dinner with French friends, I always wonder if I need a hearing aid. For example, when eight of us went to lunch together in Paris (me being the only American), I often felt left out of the conversation. It was not the language; I understand even the slang pretty well.
It was the decibels. The person on my right could easily hear the speaker on my left who was two people down the table. I often heard abut half of the conversation. I looked directly at the speaker, I stopped chewing, and I just plain listened. It did no good.
Having recently moved to Paris to consult in the software industry, it was essential that I know what people were saying. In the USA, I could hear everyone, even people 4-5 tables away. So what was going on?
After a few weeks, I realized that the restaurants where I ate dinner were uncommonly quiet. Yes, people were talking but I could not hear them. I did not hear the waiter, the ordering, the comments about the food – all the things I would hear back in San Francisco.
Finally, I realized what it was: many of the French speak softly, no louder than is necessary. And they listen carefully. Much of the time, Person A waits until Person B has finished speaking before answering.
What about all those animated conversations, arms waving, expressions exaggerated?
Yes, there was all of that. But loud voices usually did not go with the body language.
When I asked my French friends about it, they had no idea what I was talking about. They did, however, remark that the English – Americans – Irish – Scots were obnoxiously loud in restaurants.
I began to notice the same thing! Soon, before requesting a table, we listened to hear whether there were any loud English speakers and, if so, we went to a different place. Once our ears had adjusted, my family began to speak quietly also, keeping our conversation at our own table.
What is the cause? We never found out, although we theorized that perhaps, in a country that has been invaded many times, one learns not to be overheard for safety.
Now that we live once again in California, we miss a quiet dinner out. The loud conversations at the tables around us are more annoying than I realized before living in France. Does the woman four tables away care that I can hear every word… And that I do not care one bit about the gall bladder operation her sister will soon have. Or about the math teacher that does not like her daughter,