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SHOUTING and whispering

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Mark Easton | 15:40 UK time, Monday, 2 March 2009

Journeying across the TV schedules in the last few days, I feel like Gulliver.

MasterchefOn Thursday I was at "Masterchef HQ" (Masterchef BBC1) for the series final, a place where inhabitants shout their conversations. "I THOUGHT THE PORK WAS A BIT UNDERDONE!!!"

Lark Rise to Candleford Yesterday, I found myself in Candleford (Lark Rise to Candleford BBC1) where locals barely trouble their vocal chords, conducting even the most mundane communication in a breathy whisper.

ProxemicsDifferent communities, societies and cultures do have the volume set differently. The study of "proxemics" measures how far apart people like to be when conducting different kinds of conversation. The term was coined by American anthropologist Edward T. Hall who found anything below 1.5 feet is deemed intimate space for Americans.

In Latin cultures, however, people tend to be more comfortable standing closer to each other. In Nordic cultures, the opposite is true. The result is that Peruvians will tend to chase Norwegians around a room, the Scandinavian backing away until pinned to a wall.

When people get the local volume-proximity rules wrong, it can get others hot under the collar.

My reaction to the two Masterchef presenters bellowing at each other apparently only inches apart is mild amusement. But in the real world, people talking too loudly - on a mobile phone, for example - can threaten public order.

The classic example of that irritating passenger shouting into their mobile on a train is really the consequence of a conflict between two different communication environments.

The phone user sets speaking volume in relation to a perceived distance between them and the person on the other end of the line. However, other passengers see the conversation in terms of the proximity of people on the train.

Occasionally, this situation can get out of hand. In the United States in 2004, a pregnant woman was apparently knocked to the ground, handcuffed and arrested at a Washington DC metro station for talking too loudly on her cellphone.

The joy of using mobiles on a plane is now available on some airlines. Expect "I AM JUST PASSING OVER CROYDON NOW!!!" followed by loud tutting at 35,000 feet.

There are others who find whispering equally unacceptable. Those advertisements that breathe at us about how utterly orgasmic a chocolate pudding tastes employ a tone of intimacy that I would normally reserve for my closest friends and family. There is something presumptuous about the confidential delivery, I think - a bit like an Ecuadorean furniture rep at an Ikea conference, perhaps.


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