Sound resonates in a cathedral: footsteps, jingling keys, doors closing, hushed voices. Everyone speaks quietly in a cathedral, because the quiet is precious and so easy to disturb.
There is a cathedral on a hill in Bezier, France where my friends visited last weekend. It has beautiful stained glass and a magnificent organ. One of the doors has graffiti from 1821 and there is a spiral staircase to the roof barely wide enough for a person’s shoulders. We talked a lot, pointing out things that interested us, but always in soft voices.
But it wasn’t just the cathedral that kept us quiet. Walking around on the roof, and then when we ventured back to the streets of Bezier, we continued to speak softly. We had had a picnic, quietly. Explored the town, quietly. Even bought train tickets at the station quietly.
Americans speak loudly, but it takes coming to a country like France to realize it. Everyone here speaks at a volume sufficient for communication, but never as exuberantly as everyday conversation in the States. Before coming to France, I read a lot of literature about how the French expect Americans to shout, be loud drunks and overly friendly to the point of being superficial.
We talked about these expectations at my program’s orientation. We were all aware that our conversations on trams, at restaurants and in the parks drew attention to us. One of the program leaders, Cedric, told us that in a few weeks, maybe a month, we would have adjusted to the way the French speak. To the year-long exchange students, he said that the students who would arrive in January would seem unnecessarily loud, and they would fully understand how much they had changed over the fall semester. He assured us all we would assimilate without needing to try.
It has been about five weeks since then. We still exclaim over new things, still have animated conversations, but we have lowered the volume. Now, seeing something cool out of a train window, we attract each others’ attention energetically, but no louder than we would ask someone to pass the salt at dinner. It goes a long way towards blending in, since in France, no one looks twice at a group they can hardly hear—even if the voices are American.
When I signed up for immersion, I never thought it would change the way I speak English as much as the way I speak French. Nonetheless, the gentler pace of life here, and the anatomy of the French language itself, combine to make speech less forceful and cacophonous than in the United States.
France is a quiet country, not just inside its countless cathedrals. Anytime I leave the main plazas of Montpellier, the sounds of people disperse and vanish. In Los Angeles, there are always sounds of people talking, playing music, playing sports and partying, plus sounds of cars and planes. In Montpellier, Sete and Beziers, I have encountered quiet public spaces. The surroundings—an abundance of open space, stone buildings that absorb sound and cars with soft motors—keep the peace, so to say. People speak as they would in a cathedral, preserving the quiet.
Privacy is highly valued, so people talk quietly amongst themselves, not for the ears of the whole world. No one is forced into a conversation simply because they are standing close by. There is an overwhelming lack of urgency, which means everyone has time to approach their friends, colleagues or cashiers without needing to shout their interactions. French is a quiet language, with lots of airy sounds that resemble whispering. The vowels are made by keeping the mouth slightly closed. Ultimately, it is physically difficult to speak French loudly.
I am learning to live at a different volume. The better I become at French, the more my speaking habits, in French and in English, are affected. At first, the quiet way people speak made everyday interactions difficult. The wonderful thing about immersion, though, is that everything gets easier over time. It’s a different culture here, and despite the skepticism that I felt when people told me that France would change me, now I believe they were right. I doubt it will be difficult to switch back, but for the moment my friends and I—without any conscious effort—are leaving behind our stereotypical American selves.