Keep it down, please

The mayor of Malaga, Francisco de la Torre, suggested at an event last week that the way to solve the problem of noise pollution in the city centre was for people to keep their voices down.

"In the Mediterranean culture we speak in very loud voices and we must learn to speak more quietly. If I lower my voice, silence reigns and if silence reigns we can speak more quietly," he said at a breakfast event organised by the Nueva Economía debating organisation.

The fact that Spanish people talk in loud voices is one of the first cultural differences that hits those of us brought up in quieter countries as soon as we step off the aeroplane. And, as the mayor said, the problem is that if one person speaks in a loud voice, the next person has to speak even louder to be heard.

Similarly, a Spaniard who walks into a restaurant in a northern European country finds the atmosphere somewhat eerie. Something must have happened. Mouths are moving but the noise doesn't reach their ears.

Somehow I doubt countries with quiet speakers are without noise problems in their city centres. And if the majority of law abiding 'malagueños' lowered their voices on a Saturday night, the peaceful murmuring would still be interrupted by the noisy few who always manage to cause a commotion wherever they are.

Last weekend I was asked to speak quietly in another location. It was at the entrance to the Caminito del Rey, where we were instructed not to disturb the wildlife by shouting as we made our way around the gravity-defying gorgeside walkway.

The instruction was largely respected - although we were walking alongside a large group of visitors elegantly communicating in sign language, which may have helped reduce the noise level - and we were rewarded with a glimpse of a wild goat chewing at the leaves of a tree while the vultures circled overhead.

But back to the problems of noise in Malaga city centre: school teachers will be able to tell the mayor that however many local police - or he might introduce a squad of special noise reduction officers - he puts in the city centre to shush at the noisy diners, the decibels will only drop temporarily until the next joke, debate or funny story comes up.

Perhaps the answer would be for us all to learn sign language so that we can switch when we cross a boundary line drawn around town and city centres with a sign saying "no voices beyond this point".

But then what would we do with the tourists? Surely part of the cultural experience of a holiday in Spain is to forget the "keep your voice down, people might hear you" lessons from childhood, say "when in Rome..." and shout louder than the people at the next table.