22 Mar 2023

Preserving the peace (and quiet)...

We live in a noisy world: jets fly overhead; juggernauts accelerate outside our window; engine noise is a constant background hum; sirens wail. Even when we retreat into interior public spaces, anxious to escape the cacophony of street noise, we must deal with “background” music played at top volume, broadcast announcements, loud conversations.

It’s true that, outside our own homes, we have little control over most of these causes of noise pollution, but we can take responsibility for our own noise levels; that means modulating the volume of the voice and being very circumspect about the volume and noise leakage of our various devices. Of course, you do not have to slip silently through the shadows, never emitting any sound louder than a barely audible whisper. As with all good manners, adjusting your own volume is about being self-aware and observant, judging the situation in which you find yourself, and ensuring that your noise output is not going to cause inconvenience or distress for the people around you.

• In Restaurants and Bars

Many venues play music at an unfeasibly loud level of amplification, which is compounded by hard echoing surfaces such as wooden floors. Inevitably, voices are raised to counteract background noise and you are soon shouting to make yourself heard. In many places this is inevitable, and you have to accept the hubbub with good grace. But if you are in a tranquil restaurant or a pub where locals are enjoying quiet conversation at the bar, you should be very aware of the volume of your voice.

We all tend to shout as we become more animated and excited, or to emit loud, shrill laughter. Look around you, assess the situation and try to dial down the noise level – lower your voice and test whether your companions can hear you. If they’re constantly cupping their ears, asking you to repeat yourself, or looking confused and disengaged, then you’ve overdone it, and you will have to adjust accordingly. If one member of your party is very loud, it’s quite acceptable to politely point this out. Don’t assign blame, just say, “I think we should keep our voices down – it’s very quiet in here and we’re probably disturbing other people.”

• On Public Transport

Most people on buses and trains tend to close themselves off in their own world, lost in their phones, laptops or books and quite possibly also wearing headphones or earbuds. If you are travelling with somebody, then you may well want to talk but remember to keep your voice down and don’t distract an entire train carriage with your conversation. The same rules apply if you are having a conversation on your phone; lower your voice and, if reception is poor on the bus or train, don’t respond by shouting ever louder, just explain where you are and suggest that you’ll talk later.

Remember, commuter journeys are much more likely to be hushed and silent, especially on trains. People are preparing for, or recovering from, a day’s work and want to retreat into silent contemplation, and this should be respected. You may find journeys in the middle of the day, when trains and buses are packed with families, kids and gangs of friends, are much noisier and you will simply have to accept that this is the case and arm yourself with headphones. At any time of day, it goes without saying that you should respect “quiet zones”, mute your devices and take a vow of silence.

Finally, if you’re one of the self-contained passengers who is communing with their device, always use effective headphones that will block any sound from escaping. It is the height of anti-social behaviour to listen to music or watch a video without headphones, or to hold a phone away from your ear when conversing, inflicting both sides of your conversation on neighbours. This may seem self-evident, but it is happening with increasing frequency.

• Other Public Spaces

There are certain public spaces where, by mutual consent, noise should be kept to a minimum. If you are visiting art galleries or museums, it is perfectly acceptable to chat with your companion, but the expectation is that you will do so in a low, discreet murmur, so that you do not distract other visitors. Chatting on mobile phones should also be avoided.

It is fine to chat quietly while you are waiting for a film, performance or play to begin, but there is a strong presumption that you will be silent during the performance or screening and, if for some reason, you feel that you have to say something to your companion, you will do so in a barely audible whisper. We’ve all been to cinemas, for example, where some members of the audience behave as if they were in their own sitting room, chatting audibly throughout the film. This is the height of bad manners, as it takes no account of the situation or the comfort of other audience members.

• At Work

Open plan offices are increasingly common, and while they can be great spaces in which to communicate and work as a team, they can also be very noisy and distracting. It is sensible when planning an open plan layout to take noise into consideration: locate the kitchen, which is always a focal point for conviviality, away from the main space; provide meeting rooms or ‘break-out’ rooms for occasions when conversation is imperative; create a layout where people are encouraged to get up and move around – don’t block in desks so that people feel obliged to shout across the room.

Don’t be the office loudmouth. Restrict yourself to quiet conversations with your immediate neighbours and take yourself into the kitchen (or any other designated area) if you’re having an animated chat. Never shout across the room to get a colleague’s attention: it’s always better to walk over to their desk or even send them a quick text. If you’ve got a video call booked, use your headphones and warn your neighbours, and try to keep the volume of your voice down. You really shouldn’t need to shout if you’re using sophisticated modern phones and computers.

You might feel that music while you work is an excellent way of enhancing energy or signalling that the weekend is approaching, but you should never inflict it on your colleagues. There will always be someone desperately trying to concentrate, or who has entirely different musical tastes and is being slowly driven mad by your playlist. Remember, if in doubt, always use headphones.


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