A few years ago, I was at lunch with three other women at a Japanese restaurant. On my way back from the restroom, I could hear their voices from the other side of the establishment. I remember feeling embarrassed. I felt the same kind of embarrassment and guilt by association I feel when abroad, trapped in an otherwise quiet subway car with other Americans.
In San Francisco, I developed a habit of carrying earplugs with me everywhere. Cafes, where I sought comfortable conversations or focus, had become overrun with unruly children, men with even unrulier beards yelling into their phones, middle-managers engaged in elephantine palaver. In bars, people would scream so loudly in my ear—even though normal volume would have sufficed at that proximity—that I’d literally feel my ear drum vibrate.
People now walk down the street with nary a flinch when a fire truck blares by, and music on headphones from as far away as 3 feet could be heard as if they were on my own ears.
There’s something deaf about all of this.
Did you know that earbuds are able to produce 100 decibels of sound which can cause hearing damage after 2 hours? At 110 decibels, it only takes about 30 minutes. Apple was sued over contributing to hearing loss through poorly-designed accessories, though the suit against the tech giant ultimately—and unsurprisingly—failed.
Sound doesn’t have to be particularly loud to be harmful, either. Have you noticed how quiet it suddenly becomes when your fridge shuts off? 85 decibels can cause damage after 8 hours. That’s the level of noise that city traffic makes, heard from inside your car, and what most would consider white noise. Our tolerance has risen to such an extent that we're inured to all but the most explosive of sounds.
Of course, we’re all loud in some situations. Happy volume or stridence are warranted and welcome every now and again. But what happens when invasive noise becomes constant? Worse, normal, even celebrated? While it’s easy to brush concerns off as curmudgeonly, the truth of it is that noise is literally killing us. If not killing us, then disabling us. And by “us,” I’m referring to those among us as young as 12 years old:
“Analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data from the United States suggests that between 1994 and 2006, the prevalence of hearing loss among teenagers 12 to 19 years old rose significantly from 3.5% to 5.3%.”
Noise is not only annoying, it’s undeniably harmful to both body and psyche. (There’s a reason why it’s been used in military torture.)
I often wonder how our attitudes toward, and how our handling of, audible noise affect us in other areas of our lives. Does being loud correlate at some level with pushiness? Does high volume encourage, even necessitate, aggression? (E.g., "men are loud because they’ve been afforded the space;" "women are loud because they’ve struggled to be heard," and so on.) And do these characteristics—nurtured, practiced, protected—lead to deafness in more subtle ways, closing us off to other viewpoints, shrinking the space one thinks to offer others in conversation, eventually making it normal to take instead of give?
You have no further to look than at social media, particularly in abundant free-for-all forums found on Twitter, to see how this might play out. Anonymity and the ability to “block” (or passive-aggressively “mute”) facilitate easy rage with little accountability. It’s a large space with extreme opinions, and there’s so much din that it can feel as though to roar is the only way to be heard. People, tempted by the ubiquity of their respective soapboxes, are given to lecturing in interminable threads. Some explicitly sprinkle in a “don’t @ me” now and again: a reminder to not interrupt. A signal that the speaker is not interested in listening.
Drive-by invective is just as commonplace. It’s common because it’s cheap. Imagine being stuck in a train car for hours with the person you just screamed at from your car as you blazed past; or schooled on Twitter, then blocked. Imagine having to then share a table with, live in the same space with, work for, this person. Imagine if you had to be accountable for the volume you raise.
My basic point, I guess, is that noise is bad and has negative repercussions for all of us, for our physical ears and beyond.
Ultimately, I feel that loudness is an amplifications of something other than sound or opinion. In the most elemental sense, and at its most benign, I would propose that it’s laziness.
There’s something called the 80/90 rule, where audiologists recommend listening at no more than 80 percent of a device's volume at any given time, giving your ears a rest every 90 minutes. How about an 80/90 rule for social media and face-to-face interactions, too? But maybe we tweak it a bit: speak at 80% volume, listen 90% of the time.
Twitter at one point promoted absorption over expression. Imagine if our head of state took this to heart. Imagine if we all did, and not just on our apps. How different everything might be.
Maybe it’s time to listen.