Why the Chinese speak loudly

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Pauline Loh

By Pauline D Loh

Managing editor,  Sunday/Features/Food, China Daily

Pauline LohCrowds in China cannot be ignored. And according to some legal definitions, three people will make a crowd. Certainly, especially in confined spaces like trains, coaches and planes, a trio of excited Chinese talking all at once is enough to grab your attention, often against your will.

So why is it that we talk so loudly. I asked my young Chinese colleagues, and they came up with several very interesting suggestions.

It’s the loudspeaker mentality.

Not so long ago, being able to speak through a loudspeaker meant you were a person of authority. Only community leaders had the privilege of rousing them in the morning or at noon for the daily lessons on how to be better citizens.

It was so throughout those turbulent decades of the 60s to 80s, where strident street parades took place frequently throughout the country. Perhaps that was when the “loud and proud” culture seeped into the general consciousness.

I am tempted to subscribe to this theory, because loudspeakers still blare daily from the school next to our apartment, broadcasting the discipline master’s constant displeasure on how slow the students are gathering for assembly on the basketball courts, or how lethargic they are in doing the mandatory morning exercises.

Frankly, the loudspeakers are redundant. We hear him clearly without them, and he is intimidating enough to almost scare us into obediently going through the motions with the students.

No, no. It’s the village mentality, says another young colleague. You had to shout in order to be heard above the cacophony of chickens and ducks. And you had to hail across to the next hamlet separated by dense vegetation, hillock or stream.

I thought that was a little too farfetched, but what do I know, having been transplanted two generations ago to another mainly urban Chinese community abroad that still clung tenaciously to the Confucian tenets of gentility and the middle way, propagated in properly muted tones.

My own theory is that we Chinese are natural show-offs, no matter the nationality.

Take the young businessman sitting behind me on the high-speed train back from Tianjin recently.

He was toying with his latest iPhone 5 all the way. How do I know? Because the distinctive cricket ring tone was chirping almost non-stop throughout the half-hour journey.

I was made aware that he was going to be on his way to Urumqi on a business trip the next day to close a 400,000 yuan deal, and that he had got someone at his office to book his flight, business class.

How do I know? Well, actually half the train carriage knew as well — because he took care to raise his voice during all the necessary arrangements to proudly broadcast his elite positioning.

So we are now privy to the fact that he is an important person in the company, trusted to sign important deals, and that he is transported in style. We were in the first class train carriage.

And all in the space of 25 minutes.

In another train journey, a few months ago from Guilin to Laibin in Guangxi, a young mother sitting opposite us in a crammed carriage was gently telling her son not to speak too loudly.

She cajoled him, made sure he did not kick out under the table too often, and her husband quietly offered to help us with our bulky luggage at the end of the line. She’s from Laibin, by no means a large city, but she had the earth-anchored qualities of a diligent middle-class working wife and mother.

But her most redeeming quality, to me, was the fact that she was teaching her young child how to behave in public.

It seems that at least two to three generations of Chinese have forgotten how to teach their children manners, or they may have lost the ability to differentiate between loving indulgence and raising a public menace.

If China is to allow the world to better understand it, then perhaps she should start looking at how she is represented at home and abroad. Every Chinese who steps out of the country is a cultural ambassador, and the whole country is also judged by that one person who misbehaves when a visitor is abused in the country.

Unfortunately, opinion is dictated by chance encounters.

I really hate to think what foreign tourists at the airports thought of the recent spate of violence when irate Chinese passengers physically attacked airline staff.

And, it is only when the vast majority of Chinese going abroad manage to speak in civilized tones, learn to wait in line like the rest of the passengers and have the subtle sense to moderate their purchasing excesses that China will be presented as what it should be: A world leader in economics and culture that had had 5,000 years to perfect the art of civilization.