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An essay by Charles Dudley Warner

Social Screaming

Title:     Social Screaming
Author: Charles Dudley Warner [More Titles by Warner]

Of all the contrivances for amusement in this agreeable world the "Reception" is the most ingenious, and would probably most excite the wonder of an angel sent down to inspect our social life. If he should pause at the entrance of the house where one is in progress, he would be puzzled. The noise that would greet his ears is different from the deep continuous roar in the streets, it is unlike the hum of millions of seventeen-year locusts, it wants the musical quality of the spring conventions of the blackbirds in the chestnuts, and he could not compare it to the vociferation in a lunatic asylum, for that is really subdued and infrequent. He might be incapable of analyzing this, but when he caught sight of the company he would be compelled to recognize it as the noise of our highest civilization. It may not be perfect, for there are limits to human powers of endurance, but it is the best we can do. It is not a chance affair. Here are selected, picked out by special invitation, the best that society can show, the most intelligent, the most accomplished, the most beautiful, the best dressed persons in the community--all receptions have this character. The angel would notice this at once, and he would be astonished at the number of such persons, for the rooms would be so crowded that he would see the hopelessness of attempting to edge or wedge his way through the throng without tearing off his wings. An angel, in short, would stand no chance in one of these brilliant assemblies on account of his wings, and he probably could not be heard, on account of the low, heavenly pitch of his voice. His inference would be that these people had been selected to come together by reason of their superior power of screaming. He would be wrong.

--They are selected on account of their intelligence, agreeableness, and power of entertaining each other. They come together, not for exercise, but pleasure, and the more they crowd and jam and struggle, and the louder they scream, the greater the pleasure. It is a kind of contest, full of good-humor and excitement. The one that has the shrillest voice and can scream the loudest is most successful. It would seem at first that they are under a singular hallucination, imagining that the more noise there is in the room the better each one can be heard, and so each one continues to raise his or her voice in order to drown the other voices. The secret of the game is to pitch the voice one or two octaves above the ordinary tone. Some throats cannot stand this strain long; they become rasped and sore, and the voices break; but this adds to the excitement and enjoyment of those who can scream with less inconvenience. The angel would notice that if at any time silence was called, in order that an announcement of music could be made, in the awful hush that followed people spoke to each other in their natural voices, and everybody could be heard without effort. But this was not the object of the Reception, and in a moment more the screaming would begin again, the voices growing higher and higher, until, if the roof were taken off, one vast shriek would go up to heaven.

This is not only a fashion, it is an art. People have to train for it, and as it is a unique amusement, it is worth some trouble to be able to succeed in it. Men, by reason of their stolidity and deeper voices, can never be proficients in it; and they do not have so much practice--unless they are stock-brokers. Ladies keep themselves in training in their ordinary calls. If three or four meet in a drawing-room they all begin to scream, not that they may be heard--for the higher they go the less they understand each other--but simply to acquire the art of screaming at receptions. If half a dozen ladies meeting by chance in a parlor should converse quietly in their sweet, ordinary home tones, it might be in a certain sense agreeable, but it would not be fashionable, and it would not strike the prevailing note of our civilization. If it were true that a group of women all like to talk at the same time when they meet (which is a slander invented by men, who may be just as loquacious, but not so limber-tongued and quick-witted), and raise their voices to a shriek in order to dominate each other, it could be demonstrated that they would be more readily heard if they all spoke in low tones. But the object is not conversation; it is the social exhilaration that comes from the wild exercise of the voice in working off a nervous energy; it is so seldom that in her own house a lady gets a chance to scream.

The dinner-party, where there are ten or twelve at table, is a favorite chance for this exercise. At a recent dinner, where there were a dozen uncommonly intelligent people, all capable of the most entertaining conversation, by some chance, or owing to some nervous condition, they all began to speak in a high voice as soon as they were seated, and the effect was that of a dynamite explosion. It was a cheerful babel of indistinguishable noise, so loud and shrill and continuous that it was absolutely impossible for two people seated on the opposite sides of the table, and both shouting at each other, to catch an intelligible sentence. This made a lively dinner. Everybody was animated, and if there was no conversation, even between persons seated side by side, there was a glorious clatter and roar; and when it was over, everybody was hoarse and exhausted, and conscious that he had done his best in a high social function.

This topic is not the selection of the Drawer, the province of which is to note, but not to criticise, the higher civilization. But the inquiry has come from many cities, from many women, "Cannot something be done to stop social screaming?" The question is referred to the scientific branch of the Social Science Association. If it is a mere fashion, the association can do nothing. But it might institute some practical experiments. It might get together in a small room fifty people all let loose in the ordinary screaming contest, measure the total volume of noise and divide it by fifty, and ascertain how much throat power was needed in one person to be audible to another three feet from the latter's ear. This would sift out the persons fit for such a contest. The investigator might then call a dead silence in the assembly, and request each person to talk in a natural voice, then divide the total noise as before, and see what chance of being heard an ordinary individual had in it. If it turned out in these circumstances that every person present could speak with ease and hear perfectly what was said, then the order might be given for the talk to go on in that tone, and that every person who raised the voice and began to scream should be gagged and removed to another room. In this room could be collected all the screamers to enjoy their own powers. The same experiment might be tried at a dinner-party, namely, to ascertain if the total hum of low voices in the natural key would not be less for the individual voice to overcome than the total scream of all the voices raised to a shriek. If scientific research demonstrated the feasibility of speaking in an ordinary voice at receptions, dinner-parties, and in "calls," then the Drawer is of opinion that intelligible and enjoyable conversation would be possible on these occasions, if it becomes fashionable not to scream.

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Charles Dudley Warner's essay: Social Screaming