Our own worst enemies in restaurants

Our own worst enemies in restaurants

We all know how difficult it can be to hold a conversation in some venues, like bars and restaurants. It’s a simple matter of the ambient noise being too loud to discern what your fellow guests are saying.

The scientific journal Nature reported that too much ambient noise could cost the venue money!

It took us a bit to digest the synopsis of the research paper Nature published, but the outcome is clear. The more noise in an establishment, the more dissatisfied your customers will be, and the less time and money they spend there.

This is particularly true for the older population. As we age, speech in noise can become harder to discern and following a conversation can be a real trial.

And here’s the fun part… customers aggravate the situation.

How we self-sabotage in noisy environments

When you speak in a loud environment, you unconsciously raise your voice to compensate for the noise around you. You will involuntarily increase the amount of vocal effort when speaking in noise. Critically, so will people around you, meaning that the effort required will escalate as more people try to compensate for the increasing noise around them.

This increase in vocal effort, and the increase in subsequent noise, is called the Lombard Effect. It’s the involuntary tendency of speakers to increase their vocal effort when speaking in loud noise to enhance the audibility of their voice.

This phenomenon isn’t just seen in human social environments. Even birds, like the Great Tit in the UK, sing at a higher frequency in noisy urban surroundings than in quieter ones. They do this to overcome the auditory masking that would otherwise impair other birds from hearing their song.

Noise in restaurants is not new

The increase in noise in restaurants is not a new phenomenon. Still, it has undoubtedly been accentuated by the minimalist trend in venue fit-outs and the desire for kitchens open to the dining space.

The trend of open kitchens has added more noise to the restaurant mix and is an added challenge for those with hearing loss.

In 2018, Zagat, an organisation that collects and correlates ratings of restaurants by diners, released results from their annual Dining Trends survey. The survey asked close to 13,000 diners across America about spending habits, social media influence on food choices, and dining do’s and don’ts.

Diners were explicitly asked about the most significant irritation they faced when dining. Of the surveyed diners, 24% said noise was the most bothersome, followed by service (23%), crowds (15%), high prices (12%), and parking (10%).

This is where the Nature report comes in. The researchers had developed hypotheses about disturbance, time and money, and unsurprisingly, they were all confirmed:

  1. The amount of older adults’ disturbance increased with the noise, and
  2. The willingness to spend time and money decreased as the noise increased.

It’s surprisingly little noise that can cause issues

So, what levels of noise are we talking about? The research showed that participants’ perceived communication disturbance increased with noise starting from even the lowest noise levels.

At even low noise levels, patrons were put off. But at 51.6 dBA, this perceived disturbance increased dramatically until a saturation point of 66.9 dBA.

What do those figures mean? 51.6 dBA is below the sound level of a typical conversation, which may seem surprising. Are people really disturbed by noise levels less than that of a conversation?

When we think about it, however, that should be expected. Suppose you are trying to have a conversation. You don’t want to compete with the noise levels close to meeting the levels of another conversation.

Participants reported that they would have left the dining facility as quickly as they had entered at about 66 dBA and above, somewhere between a clothes dryer and a vacuum cleaner.

Noise levels can be dangerous to bar staff

In 2018, the public venue noise-level measurement app SoundPrint reported noise levels in restaurants and bars.

They found that, on average, New York City restaurants are too noisy for conversation (78 dBA). They also found that New York City bars could endanger the hearing health of venue employees and patrons (81 dBA).

More than 70% of restaurants and 90% of bars were either Loud (dBA 76-80) or Very Loud (dBA +81), meaning only 30% of restaurants and 10% of bars surveyed were conducive to conversation.

In light of this and other supporting research, some researchers suggest that dining establishments should not focus on the “maximum seating capacity” but use “acoustical capacity”. That is, “the maximum number of persons in a room for sufficient quality of verbal communication;”.

Interior designers have tools in their arsenal to help increase the acoustical capacity of a venue. They can maximise capacity by using carpeting, sound-absorbent panels, or curtains on the walls and ceilings.

A growing group that can’t be ignored

As our life expectancy increases, a growing older population is more likely to experience hearing loss and, thus, more likely to struggle in noisy environments.

Designers and architects can address the barriers this cohort faces by making appropriate decisions during the planning and design stages and including elements and features that increase the acoustical capacity of a space.

But, until we see a broader reversal of the trend towards minimalist designs, hard surfaces, and open kitchens, the responsibility for enjoying dining in public rests with ourselves.

How to hear better in restaurants

Before choosing a place to dine, peruse reviews to see if anyone commented on excessive noise in the venue. You can also use a tool like the free SoundPrint app, or the Ambient Menu website to search for quiet venues.

SoundPrint relies on the public to measure noise levels in restaurants and cafés using the SoundPrint app and submit them to a central database. Others can then view those measurements and rankings for searching for specific venues or viewing a map of venues in their selected area.

Ambient Menu doesn’t have an app and currently relies on customers to register and then provide a review of their experience. It looks to be focusing on South Australia at the moment but there are a few Queensland venues in the database.

Once you select a venue, see if you can call ahead and ask to be seated in a quieter section with good lighting. you may also decide to dine at a less busy time to avoid as much noise as possible.

Once in the venue, make sure you take stock of the physical space and select a seating position with good lighting so you can see your companions’ faces.

Try to face them directly and place yourself with your back to the noisiest areas.

Also, remember even those without hearing loss can have difficulty hearing in restaurants and bars. It is not uncommon, so don’t beat yourself up about it. Wear your hearing aids and use a remote microphone if you have one.

Finally, keep enjoying the activities you love and connecting with the people you care about. It may be a little more work with hearing loss… but it’s worth it.

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