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The tyranny of sound

The world's addiction to background noise
April 2023, no. 452

The tyranny of sound

The world's addiction to background noise
April 2023, no. 452

Back in the early 1980s, when I was working in Canberra as a public servant in an open-plan office, I obtained a doctor’s certificate declaring that I was allergic to cigarette smoke. I wasn’t – not at least in any strict medical sense. I was merely a healthy non-smoker who found being enveloped in clouds of second-hand cigarette smoke distressing and unpleasant.

The doctor’s letter was my final gambit in the ceaseless campaign to keep my hair, lungs, and clothes smoke-free. At the time, I was following the case of a man just over the other side of the Parliamentary Triangle, a Department of Finance employee who was attempting to sue the Department for damage to his health from passive smoking at work. He did not fare well. Reading between the lines of the newspaper reports, I inferred that this plaintiff was being edged, by the public service legal team and by accommodating journalists, into the Nutters’ Corner – a place from which every grievance of his was further proof of his craziness.

My fate, following my grizzles and my doctor’s letter, was not so grim, but I am sure my cigarette ‘allergy’ resulted in my file being marked ‘Not to be Promoted’. Not that it mattered – I got out of there and eventually set my own workplace health standards as a self-employed person – but the faint sense of being an oversensitive pariah still haunts me.

This may seem fantastical to younger readers, but people – something like half of the adult community – used to smoke everywhere. Practically the only place you could be free from smoke was in your own home. Smokers smoked in cinemas and restaurants. They smoked at work, in meetings, in university tutorials. They smoked on planes and in taxis, buses, and trains. One therapist I used to consult puffed away on his pipe during our sessions.

Public smoking made the lives of many non-smokers miserable and socially difficult. I rarely ate out, except when refusing an invitation would ostracise me altogether. I never set foot inside a pub, never went to clubs or discos. I made a pill of myself by asking people not to smoke in meetings and tutorials (a request not always granted). I avoided befriending people who smoked. In response to the doctor’s allergy letter, my desk was moved an awkward distance away from the rest of my team.

Smoking bans in planes and workplaces began in the late 1980s in Australia, and by the early noughties finally extended to restaurants and cafés. After decades of struggle, the rights of those who impinged on the health and comfort of others in public places were finally put where they belonged – secondary to the rights of everyone else to a safe environment.

So why am I reliving all this now? Simply because I recently found myself fantasising about going to my doctor and asking for a letter claiming that I am neurodivergent and that I require a quietish environment. In the first instance, this letter would be trotted into the gym I attend, where the music has sometimes reached 95 decibels (I measured it one day on my iPhone). My requests for the music to be turned down have been utterly unsuccessful. I can see that I may have to fall back on my old strategy of falsely claiming a medical condition.

As a society, we have finally understood the importance of protecting our lungs, only to accept an increasing assault on our ears. Hearing must be pretty much the least valued and least protected of all our bodily faculties.

Noise is the new cigarette smoke. The most obvious potential fallout of this carelessness is hearing damage caused by sheer volume. You probably have a smartphone with a decibel meter. Here is a thumbnail sketch of the everyday meaning of a decibel (dB) count, remembering that the decibel scale is logarithmic, so that for every three points of increase in the scale, the volume doubles. A refrigerator hum is around 40 dB. Normal conversation is around 60 dB (though I suspect this may underestimate Australians’ propensity to shout). A petrol-driven lawnmower is 80-85 dB and a motorbike 95 dB. A car horn at five metres, or an approaching subway train, is 100 dB. Beyond this level you are into entertainment venues, sirens, and firecrackers, where hearing loss can begin within five minutes.

Most restaurants these days operate in the 85-95 dB range – that is, you are eating and trying to talk beside a lawnmower or a motorbike. At this level, damage to hearing is likely within two hours. That’s a bad thing to do to your customers; it should be an illegal thing to do to your staff, who are there for up to eight hours a day.

It appears that neither the hospitality industry nor WorkSafe is taking this on as a public health challenge. My research, courtesy of Dr Google, suggests that the best the hospitality industry could do was to recommend that because restaurants were often in breach of the noise guidelines set out by several WorkCover authorities, the solution was to change the guidelines. In 2011, Restaurant and Catering Australia lodged a submission with Safe Work Australia recommending that the maximum average noise level in their workplaces should be lifted from 85 dB to 100 dB. Given the noise levels at some restaurants I have visited recently, Safe Work Australia seems to have acceded to this suggestion.

The other aspect of noise that is rarely discussed is its effect on mental health. Even if ambient noise in public is not sufficiently loud to damage hearing, it can chafe and corrode the soul. Shrill vocal music in supermarkets. Commercial radio in the GP’s waiting room. Commercial television in hospital waiting rooms. Restaurant music piped into the street (which, by my reading of EPA guidelines, is illegal). Television screens and loud pop music in restaurants. Inane, high-voltage music or talkback radio inflicted on paying taxi occupants. Thumping, repetitive electronic music in the airport lounge. Commercial radio in the local florist shop. And the last bastion – bookshops like Readings. During a recent visit, I was regaled by loud doof-doof.

Why has the world become so addicted to background noise? When did music morph from something we listened to consciously, with full attention, to something akin to aural chewing gum? How did it become an experience deprived of flavour and meaning, a stimulus functioning only as compulsive, non-nutritive matter?

I find myself becoming exhausted and irritated by my forays into public places. I can’t wait to get home and escape into blissful quiet or go for a long walk away from it all, where the only singing is that of the wind and birds.

A recent conversation with a young gym instructor cast some light on this state of affairs. I had gone up to him to ask whether the loud music could be turned down. He said people needed to be spurred on by loud music. I said this was not true of all of us, and anyway, modern technology provided the perfect solution – people who wanted loud music could bring their own ear pods and smartphone and listen to their own choice and volume of ‘motivation’. The gym instructor then delivered his killer argument: you couldn’t have a gym without background music. Earlier that week he had arrived at work to find that someone had forgotten to put the sound system on when the gym opened. The only things to be heard were small flurries of conversation and the whoosh and thump of machines and weights. It was eerie, he said. Eerie. I sensed the existential dread he must have experienced as he fumbled for the play button.

That’s it, isn’t it? We have unwittingly created a world in which we are giving up on the more austere pleasure of navigating silence and have opted instead for constant aural bread and circuses. Sadly, I can see several impediments to a prompt resolution to this problem. First, the causes of this fear/desire are more subtle and unconscious than is the case with nicotine addiction. Second, corporate interest in our remaining thus enthralled is more widely and less clearly shared than in the case of tobacco companies and smoking – making it harder to resist. 

This article, one of a series of ABR commentaries addressing cultural and political subjects, was funded by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. 

Comments (3)

  • Absolutely spot on. Why the fear of silence?
    Posted by Robt Kenny
    23 April 2023
  • For my part, living under the west-bound flight path to Adelaide and Perth, the incessant passage of aircraft and the contingent emissions and additonal warming they cause reminds me of the fragility of humanity.
    Posted by Patrick Hockey
    21 April 2023
  • Hi Debi, thank you for "The tyranny of sound", it raises such important questions for public discussion. Brava!
    Posted by Sarah Day
    31 March 2023

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