Quiet places in public spaces: an appetite for change

July 11, 2019

by Elizabeth Linsdell

3 min read

Have you ever sat in a restaurant with a group of friends and not been able to hear anyone but the person sitting next to you? It seems this is a common problem but is anyone coming to the table to discuss the impact of noise in everyday experiences.

Bustling and busy cafe restaurant

The Washington Post and The Guardian recently posted articles addressing the lack of quiet spaces in restaurants. The reports dug into why we need quiet spaces and who is really affected by the dangers of restaurant noise. The Washington Post article declared that restaurant noise is not just irritating, but goes as far as discriminating against those who struggle to hear in noise. So what is being done about it?

Struggling to hear in noise is actually a lesser-known type of hearing issue that is not usually assessed with standard hearing tests. It’s a hearing difficulty that prevents the person from hearing conversations when they are around background noise, such as in a restaurant or in a café (or for children the classroom and playground). The acoustics of many restaurants are made worse by their design - it’s in vogue to have spacious and minimalist décor, the downside of this means there are no soft furnishings to absorb noise. The designs may look good, but they’re a recipe for disaster when it comes to hearing problems.

Restaurants are meeting places for good food and great conversation - but some do little to absorb the loud chatter and over-amplified music. This particularly affects those with hearing issues including difficulties listening to noise, exposing sufferers to a distressing experience rather than an enjoyable one.

Clubs and music venues are the most notorious for being dangerously loud. A recent study by the National Acoustic Laboratories and The HEARing Cooperative showed that music played in clubs is way over dangerous levels. This may not come as a shock, but when actual club-goers were surveyed, they said they would actually prefer if music levels were lower. So, who’s the loud music for?

The study found that the likely reason venues play such hazardously loud music is to drive drink sales – with louder music, meaningless conversation, which leads to more dancing and more consumption of drinks. Are drink sales worth more than a customer’s irreplaceable hearing?

So… what can we do?

There are apps that can help you protect your hearing, such as Apple’s Noise - which monitors your noise levels around you and pings you a notification when they are unsafe, and the ‘yelp for noise levels’ SoundPrint- which advises you of restaurants around you with quiet spaces. Then we have Sound Scouts screening for hearing issues that for some may be due to previous exposure to loud noises. Sound Scouts has been designed to test for middle ear and inner ear loss, and difficulties hearing speech-in-noise.

Quiet spaces in restaurants do exist. With public discussion on the importance of hearing health growing, we should see more demand for these spaces. Quiet areas should be a necessity for public venues - they support those who already suffer from hearing loss, and they also help prevent future hearing loss for others.

Next time you’re out and about, see if your local has a quiet area and get the conversation going!

If you are concerned about the noise level of a venue you are at, consider the following:

Is it difficult for you to hear the conversation around you?

Do you feel as though you have to shout?

Do your ears hurt?

When moving to a quieter space (outside, bathroom), are your ears ringing?

If you have answered yes to any of the questions, you might want to reconsider the venue or keep an eye on how long you are spending there. An overview of harmful noise levels can be viewed here.

Sound Scouts has been developed to test for three types of hearing loss, including difficulty hearing speech-in-noise. The difficulty hearing-in-noise replicates and magnifies an environment with excessive speech, asking the player to listen out for specific words spoken and select the corresponding items. To find out more, or test your hearing for free, visit https://soundscouts.com or download the app via the App Store or Google Play.

Testing is free in Australia only (thanks to supporting from the Federal Government) and available for purchase in the US.

by Elizabeth Linsdell