The unbearable loudness of being
CHICAGO -- Some people relish the idea of a post-apocalyptic world because they fantasize about finally getting to kill and cook their own food and sanitize their own water.
Me? I just want the quiet.
Finally home from a week’s “vacation”—if that’s the right word to describe spending seven days visiting amusement parks with two teen boys—I’m finally starting to relax in the cocoon of my home’s relative quiet.
Yes, even with two quarreling sons, the ever-present low drone of our Xbox’s explosive entertainments, two barky Chihuahuas and a neighbor who loves to mow his lawn/karaoke his heart out/rev his Harley every Sunday morning at 9, my house is an island of relative serenity.
As someone with the luxury of working from a home office, I’ve always been hyper-aware of how loud the world has gotten. The sheer volume of people talking on their cellphones, of screeching PA system announcements, of the “atmosphere” music in clothing stores and of TVs blaring in restaurants has steadily become more bothersome.
But after a full week of spending all my time out in public, it’s pretty obvious that the volume of our society has become oppressive.
Even leaving aside the utter boorishness of people who seem to think that it’s as appropriate to shout into their cellphones—or to their equally loudmouthed companions—during a football game as during a funeral service, the loudness of the places and things in our lives has reached an unprecedented pitch.
Take hotel room doors. Every time I envision a restful stay in a far more sumptuous bed than my own, I forget about the spine-rattling door slams.
The doors of many hotels are designed to ensure they close rapidly, explosively and very securely. My nerves were frayed from both the early-morning and late-night door slamming throughout the hallways and from the abrupt, ultra-loud bang from right behind me every time I exited my room.
Every once in a while you’d hear gasps emanating from hallways as other guests were similarly caught off guard by the thunderclap of their doors.
Then there are public bathrooms. I thank my lucky stars that my children were toddlers well before the age of the ferocious public “restroom.” In addition to the shock value delivered from motion sensors that flush whenever they have determined you’re done, many toilets sound as loud as artillery fire.
Lacking a decibel meter, I cannot confirm this number, but luckily, scientists have uncovered the statistics for the second terror of the public restroom: the high-power air hand-dryer.
Researchers from the University of London conducted tests with the most popular model of super-fast hand dryer and found that, depending on the size of the bathroom, the sound is roughly equivalent to a jackhammer at close range. In a small bathroom, the researchers found noise peaks of 123 decibels, which is slightly louder than a jet aircraft at 100 meters.
Then there are restaurants. Whether it’s from roaring music or TVs, restaurants are a terrible culprit. Last summer, The New York Times clocked a popular midtown Manhattan restaurant at an average of 96 decibels over the course of an hour, about as noisy as a power mower, motorcycle, farm tractor or garbage truck.
I’m the one taking earplugs into theaters to muffle the ridiculous volume levels of films. Now, I also need them for everywhere else.
In his 2010 book, “The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise,” Garret Keizer suggests that noise is not considered a big problem by the ruling class because it tends to take its harshest toll on those with low social standing or political power, such as the very young, the infirm, the elderly, the poor and racial minorities.
Medical research has linked high levels of noise to hearing impairment, anxiety, mental illness, reduced cognitive functioning, longer recovery times in hospitals and increased heart attack risk. Plus, Keizer notes, “one of the first casualties of noise is conversation.” He worries that if we don’t deal with our noise problem, “civilization … will ultimately arrive at a place where people scarcely make a peep.”
That doesn’t sound half-bad to me. But until a soundless revolution of quiet-seekers mutes our deafening landscape, I’ll be staying home more and fantasizing about a nice, quiet apocalypse.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.