How Loud is Too Loud?—When Office Soft Talk is a Better (or Worse) Choice

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 In the office, at home, in public and virtually everywhere, the one thing that often matters as much as, if not more than what you say, is how loud you say it.

Sometimes you have no choice—you have to be loud, e.g., on the job as an auctioneer, and sometimes you can’t, e.g., when at work as a professional hypnotist.

Given the significant (un)intended business, professional and social consequences of being too loud or not loud enough, it is important to determine how loud is too loud, how soft is too soft and why anyone would make either mistake (if only for the purpose of predicting and controlling that behavior).

When you do have a choice as to how loud or soft to make your vocalizations, it is important to know how and why you make the choices that you do or should—allowing that you tactically and strategically choose to be loud in some situations, e.g., shouting at the stalled driver ahead of you and soft in others, e.g., when asking for a raise.

Call this a “vocalization-volume mixed strategy”, understood as flexibly switching volume levels as required. On the other hand, there are those who are consistently loud or consistently soft-spoken, often as a reflection of some genetically-determined bias or broad motivation, such as to appear dominant or submissive, respectively. Call their strategy a “pure vocalization-volume strategy”.

Pure vs. Mixed Volume-Vocalization Strategists: Why Do They Expect a Big Payoff?

One really interesting question regarding the pure strategists is, in those cases where they have a choice, they believe a “pure loud” or “pure soft” strategy will maximize their payoffs. Another interesting question is how to get them to change, when that seems desirable. A third is the question of how often they (or the mixed strategists) choose correctly.

As a preliminary to answering these questions, it’s worthwhile to consider why (always) deliberately being loud or soft would ever be thought to pay off. The possible reasons include the following:

1. Association of vocal volume with physical power and intimidation: This is Evolutionary Biology and Taxonomy 101. The louder the vocalizations the bigger, the more intimidating and more dangerous the animal, e.g., a T-Rex, is likely to be—although the almost-cute small African rodent called a “hyrax” (not to be confused with a “Hi!-Rex”) I heard first-ear in Kenya shook the night with jack-hammer grating screeches worthy of a Jurassic pterodactyl.  In humans, this capacity and its exercise are commonly part of the physically large, thick-necked bully’s makeup.


2. Association of vocal volume with institutionalized power:  The likes of bellowing kings, Patton, stentorian senators and rave guitarists have been allowed to, if not expected to be, loud, because they have institutionalized power—power conferred on them because of rank or fame. Many obnoxious loudmouths lacking similar entitlements fancy themselves similarly privileged, and treat the world as their personal megaphone.

3.   Squeaky-wheel syndrome: Part of the presumed wisdom that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” encapsulates is the expectation that to get what you want, louder is better. Perhaps this is the rationale underlying the use of wailing walls and massive choirs: to get God’s attention, ramp up the volume, just in case (S)He hasn’t been listening or is otherwise distracted. As a complement to this tactic, loud colors and otherwise gaudy clothing is frequently observed.

4.  Soft hypnosis: I think the main reason lovers and hypnotists speak softly is that they are, as groups, both attempting the same thing. A hypnotist and some guy whispering in some girl’s ear want to induce a trance, a state of compliant helplessness and trust. Both of them also orchestrate the context to ensure that soft speech accomplishes their objectives: Ideally, hypnotist and lover will eliminate all distractions—by eliminating any competing voices (i.e., use a secluded, very physically comfortable, private space for two); by employing soft and dim lighting; by repeating key phrases, e.g., “you are so beautiful and free” (lover) or “you are feeling so beautiful and free” (hypnotist), etc., until full compliance is achieved. Funeral home directors operate on a similar softly-spoken premise.

In the office, a guilt-ridden boss forced to let a good employee go may use the same technique to ensure peaceful acquiescence and full compliance with the dismissal, e.g., private moment in the office, making the employee physically comfortable and, of course, by breaking the news very, very softly and gently.

Perhaps this is another reason why an employee unexpectedly terminated will walk out of the boss’s office feeling like a dazed zombie.

How to Change the Volume

To get a loudmouth to tone it down, humor is the best first line of defense. You could try any of these lines (but only with a good friend who also has a sense of humor):

  • “Wow!..a sonic boom before the jet flies by!”
  • “Am I late for the yodeling auditions?”
  • “Are you trying to imprint what you’re saying on my forehead?”
  •  “You haven’t made me deaf yet, so no need to talk to me as though I already am.”
  • “Just as I thought: You’ve gone and deafened yourself.”

To get a mouse-whisperer to ramp it up, using humor, try these:

  • “Sorry, your pulse was too loud for me to catch what you said.”
  • “Are you ear reading?”
  • “This is like listening to ‘Killing Me Softly’—when it’s not playing.”
  • “Great impression of submarine silent-running! Ah-roo-gah! Dive! Dive!”

If you prefer tact and diplomacy, you can resort to one of the most successful persuasive techniques: Shift the focus of fault to yourself and replace “you” with “I”. For example, instead of noting the speaker’s volume, you can say, “Sorry, I have super-sensitive ears, like a big-eared coyote.” Or, “Sorry, could you speak up a little; water from my shower…plugged my ears.”

These techniques are likeliest to work with the mixed vocalization-volume strategist, who is clearly not working with a physiological limitation or inflexible character trait. Such a MVVS will find it easy to accommodate you, since the vocalization strategy adopted in any situation is calculated, rather than hard-wired. The pure vocalization-volume strategist is more difficult to deal with, for obvious reasons:

1. Physiological: Some big people or some with compromised breathing may have labored breathing that forces them to expel air with greater force, including speech air.

Others may have impaired hearing that causes overcompensation in the form of louder speech (which they cannot recognize as being too loud). Still others may have smokers’ voice—raspy and grating, which may come across as too loud, in virtue of being equally irritating. Naturally, the genetics of larynx, pharynx and lungs will play some role in the timbre and volume of the voice.

An NBC News article, “Loud Talkers: Why Do Some Voices Seem to be Set at Top Volume”, identifies such physiological  and pathological factors, in addition to cultural, social and psychological variables.

2. Psychological: It may be that the loudmouth needs, as the stereotype suggests, to be the center of attention, or to project a stronger image, hoping to elicit fear, awe or respect for an intimidating voice used to compensate for missing other strengths, including strength and cogency of ideas.

Likewise, the soft-spoken office mouse may be someone who, bullied as a child, does not want to attract attention, preferring to blend safely into the background. Alternatively, some among the soft-spoken may have concluded that being seductive or soothing will “work” much better than being brutishly loud, preferring soft persuasion and its inducements to intimidation.

The soft-spoken may also confuse expressing nurture with communicating submission. Clearly, the soft-spoken funeral director is attempting to communicate nurture and consolation, not any subservient status (apart from that most sales staff adopt when selling).

In this he is successful, because his role makes that clear. However, in the office, a similar tactic may backfire and create the impression that the mouse-voiced colleague is a weak, insecure, submissive wuss.

Likewise, the office loudmouth may, in attempting to express dominance, end up communicating rudeness, proving the general principle that what we express frequently doesn’t match what we elicit, much as a wild rabbit may perceive a carrot as a weapon—and run.

3. Cultural/Sociological: Others may have grown up in a loud family or culture, e.g., one in which men are expected to be much louder than women, and developed a lifelong habit that is hard to shake. One implication here is that only children are far likelier to be soft-spoken than the middle or youngest child in a family of 10, especially when asking for the potatoes to be passed before they are gone.

Being an extremely soft-spoken only, I count as confirmation of that hypothesis. Noting or speculating on family birth-order may be a useful wedge into discussing the issue with an overly loud or soft-spoken colleague.

How to Know When You Are Too Loud or Too Soft

Of course, if those you are speaking to wince, you’ve got the clearest cue and clue—loud and clear that you are at least too loud. Also take note of the distance they choose to maintain from you and how they angle their bodies.

If it appears they are attempting to minimize the surface area exposed to you, except for their face (which will be full frontal to equalize and maximize the distance of both ears) that may be an unconsciously adopted posture and transmitted signal letting you know your bellowing is backfiring like a deafening backfire.

Holding their coffee mugs at ear height may be a reflex, yet futile attempt to block your sound. If their smiles look like a dentist’s plaster mold, take heed.

If your listeners thrust an ear at you, or cup theirs, allow that you are speaking too softly. Obviously, if they ask you to repeat what you’ve said, try to boost the volume a bit.

If they appear to be staring at your lips, consider the possibility that they are resorting to lip reading.  If they randomly nod or nod off, they may be sending you the same message: so, more bang, less whimper, please.

In any case, if you are not sure whether you are too loud or too soft-spoken in any situation, you can always ask.

…But just try not to do it too loudly or too softly.

By Michael Moffa