Etiquette and Elocution

Copyright 2015 by Raunig-Graham

A few months ago, a friend of mine who had moved to this city from another state, mentioned that he thought we lived in a terribly noisy city.  Hadn’t I noticed? The level of noise bothered him.  Had I become inured to it?  No, I had not.  In fact, it bothered me as well. Restaurants are particularly notorious, I was thinking, especially for someone with hearing loss, the unfortunate situation in which I now find myself. Noise in public seems to be the new normal.  It’s as if the kind of voice used at a football game is perfectly acceptable elsewhere, even in what used to be a place for relaxation.

A recent outing on a Friday evening with a second friend proved so noisy for both of us that we couldn’t even exchange two words of conversation.  Our vain attempts at a few phrases  left us angry and disappointed, so we glumly ate our food in silence and quickly left. It was an odious experience of noise pollution. Maybe, I thought later, it’s time to introduce etiquette classes into the school curriculum.  And maybe an elocution class, though it focuses on public speaking,  might carry over into personal conversations by the time students have become adults.  Some noise is natural to children;  this restaurant crowd was composed of adults.

I have been reflecting for some time now on how we sound to others and on whether it makes a difference.  Of course, I would contend that it does.  I might even suggest that intonation in our English speech in the last few years has changed society.  One could argue that it’s the other way around  —  that society has changed the way we speak, which is undoubtedly true.  Still, in my view, a case can be made that day-to-day speech has become harsher, gruffer, rougher, and louder.  Such a common way of speaking in turn makes us feel that society has become less civilized.

Today, on a public bus, people sitting up front seem to think nothing of yelling at someone in the back to get someone else’s attention.  Such passengers seem completely oblivious that they might be disturbing their fellow passengers.  And a bus rider sitting by the window wouldn’t find it unusual to glance out and see, and hear, someone on the sidewalk yelling at someone else as much as half-a-block or more away.  Gone are the days when people expect to have a quiet, pleasant bus ride. Public behavior doesn’t mean what it did 50 or maybe even 20 years ago, and I can’t exempt my own lapses.  Nor am I suggesting that we all ought to speak as if we are in the Intensive Care Ward of a hospital. There are times when a raised voice is demanded. A more casual and relaxed public behavior, however,  doesn’t mean we now have a right to be inconsiderate of others.

Then there’s the new telephone behavior, where a voice can sound hostile, disgusted, patronizing, or accusatory.  Unfortunately, what such sounds often do is provoke the listener into using a similarly unfriendly tone. Having experienced more than a few such phone voices, I decided to see what I could find on the Internet about tone of voice, particularly related to personality. While researching, I ran across a wonderful list of words put together by the Macmillan Dictionary people. It’s a list that can be used to describe different kinds of voices.

This list defined the “penetrating” voice as one “so high or loud that it makes you slightly uncomfortable.”  Then there was the “raucous” voice, which also is loud and sounds rough. Two other voices that won the “rough” award were “gravelly” and “gruff.” The “shrill” voice was considered “very unpleasant.”  It occurred to me that we may have forgotten such adjectives, as well as the good ones that describe voices:  modulated, soft-spoken, silvery, husky, matter-of-fact, appealing.  I might add the cheerful voice and the quiet, confident voice to that list.

It’s clearly not just what we say, the words and phrases we choose to express ourselves, but also how we say it that affects our interactions with people. If we fail to recognize that our interactions matter, whether with strangers or the important people in our lives, we have lost something precious. I think respect is the word that comes to mind.  We need to be able to respect others and hope they will respect us as well.  It’s the glue that keeps society from falling apart.

Skip a stone in a pond and watch the ripples on the water.

–Judith R-G

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