Several months ago Jennifer Brown, a CHHA-NL volunteer, summer student and winner of our 2015 Community Recognition Advocacy Award shared the following article with us about restaurant noise. Let us know what you think!
Have you ever gone to a restaurant and felt it was too loud? There’s a reason for that. The level of noise in restaurants has increased considerably over the past decade. In some restaurants, the hearing of the customers and staff may even be at risk. When I’m looking for a place to eat, I tend to be most interested in the quality of the food. However, as someone with hearing loss I must also take into account how loud a restaurant might be. Many people, including me find loud music irritating. However, there are fewer people aware of the damage that loud noise can cause. Exposure to high levels of noise, especially for a prolonged period of time, can have life-changing effects on our hearing and consequently, our overall health. I will explore why it is that restaurants have become increasingly loud over the last decade, while at the same time the barriers to making positive changes to reduce noise levels in restaurants have increased.
I often asked, “why are modern restaurants so noisy?” Some of the reasons for this include an increase in volume of music, open-concept designs, high ceilings, hardwood floor, and a lot of windows. All of these features cause sound waves to carry more easily through the room without being absorbed. In the past, restaurants often had carpet, table cloths, and lower ceilings, all of which helped to absorb sound. Restaurant owners face tough decisions when it comes to deciding on designs and ambience. Some restaurant owners are doing their best to keep their modern design while keeping the restaurant at an acceptable and safe noise level. But one of the main problems is that the materials that are used to reduce noise levels can be prohibitively expensive. For instance, “La Mar,” a restaurant in San Francisco, California, has recently changed its ceiling tiles to reduce the sound that is carried throughout the building. The cost for acoustic tiles alone was $20,000.
While there are surely people who enjoy a louder atmosphere, I’m among the many people who seek the opposite. A common complaint is, “I want to have a conversation without having to scream…at the top of my lungs”. This is a complaint that used to be made primarily at night clubs, but one which now applies to the restaurant industry. It is not every restaurant, nor is it only the way that restaurants are being laid out. Recent research has found that loud music increases the sale of drinks. “A drink is sold, on average, every 14.51 minutes when music is at 72 decibels, as opposed to every 11.47 minutes at 88 decibels.” This doesn’t even account for the background noise one is likely to encounter in a restaurant. At such volume levels, hearing is definitely at risk, and employees who are exposed for longer periods of time are more likely to have troubles with their hearing.
Another factor that restaurateurs may not realize is that playing loud music to increase the sales of drinks or even just to ‘improve’ the environment may also be pushing away the biggest spenders, who are often 50 years or older. Not only do they spend more on average, but they are also the most likely candidates to experience (or suffer from) hearing loss. According to Statistics Canada, 4.6 million people between the ages of 20-79 years old have been diagnosed with some form of hearing loss. A significant number of these people are 50 or older.
I believe that restaurants, regardless of the crowd they’re trying to attract, should be more mindful of noisy environments so that they can be inclusive to everybody, while at the same time attracting more diners. As Canada’s hard of hearing population increases, it’s projected that by the year 2036 the rate of hearing loss will increase from 4.6 million to 10.4 million people. This will have an even more dramatic impact on where people choose to eat. It’s not just a matter of being inclusive; it also makes good business sense.
There are many ways to keep restaurant noise at an acceptable, safe and pleasant level. One of the simplest solutions and a good starting point is to eliminate background music when the restaurant is at full capacity. Other changes include adding fabric to windows and walls to reduce the sound reverberation throughout the room and/or installing acoustic or ceiling panels in consultation with an acoustic engineering company. By getting creative and incorporating some of these changes, restaurants could still have a modern design, just one with less noise as well as happier customers and employees.
Going out to eat can be challenging for the hard of hearing and we can’t always expect restaurants to have perfect acoustics. Even in a restaurant that implements noise reduction policies it’s likely that at busy times the noise may still cause concern for those with hearing loss. A few simple tips to help make the experience more enjoyable include: going early or late
when the restaurant isn’t too busy, sitting in an area off to the side away from the restaurants speakers and asking an employee or manager if they can turn down the volume if the music is being played too loud.