On this, the first anniversary of the first COVID-19 lockdown in the UK (23 March 2020), I remember how shockingly quiet the world became when we all stopped going out. Everyday noise all but disappeared and we were able to hear the sounds of nature. The world was scary but the birds were there singing their little hearts out to boost our spirits and help us through.
Now, a year on, the vaccine rollout is happening, shops, restaurants and hairdressers are getting ready to reopen, and in the UK we have a ‘roadmap’ out of lockdown. Despite the ineptitude and corruptness of our government, there is a tiny sliver of light leading us back to a more familiar way of life. And, like everyone else, I dream about doing those things that I’ve so desperately missed. A day at the beach is top of my list, hearing the sound of the sea and feeling salty brine in my hair. Just thinking about it makes me feel more relaxed. But then I remember all the everyday noises that will accompany our return to ‘normal’ and my ears begin to ache.
I used to enjoy going to my local Wagamamas, ordering way too many plates, trying to talk to my companion over the noise from the open kitchen, each of us getting louder, the people around us doing the same until it ends up in a cacophony of metal instruments clanking on woks, loud but unintelligible voices and over-enthusiastic ramen slurping. Then I realised the ridiculousness of the situation and switched to a smaller, quieter and more authentic ramen bar where I could enjoy my food and conversations and not have a headache and sore throat at the end.
Noisy restaurants are annoying for the people that are trying to eat there, and they are potentially damaging the health of employees. A noisy eatery can also be bad for the bottom line — eight out of ten people have left a restaurant, cafe or pub because of the noise levels and ninety-one per cent have said they wouldn’t return to a noisy venue.
I used to eat out a lot, and miss having someone else do the cooking and washing up, but I will be more aware of where and when I choose to eat based on the sound environment. After a year of bad internet connections and interrupting each other on Zoom calls, I want to be able to hear the people I’m with, indulge in conflabs, tête-à-têtes and heart-to-hearts without having to shout over the background noise.
As more companies indicate that working from home will continue indefinitely, commuting as we know it may also change or become a thing of the past for some of us. Back in November 2019, I quit my job so I could take a year out to travel (yes, I know!!!). When I handed in my resignation the relief at leaving a job that turned me into a stress bunny was incredible, an actual weight lifting from my shoulders. But I was also grateful that, for the foreseeable future at least, I wouldn’t need to commute.
My day-to-day commute was 20 minutes in the morning and evening, with regular trips to London and around the UK, all done on trains. Even now just thinking about being on the 6:55 train to London, trying to contort my body into whatever space was left, surrounded by a wall of mechanical and human noise, raises my heart rate and leaves my hands a little shaky.
My noise memories of commuting include:
- the eardrum-clawing screeches of brakes on London tube trains
- the metal roll cages used to move stock along the platform at Swindon
- the tannoys — too loud, too quite, hissing, squealing, just everything about them
- the banging of broken compartment doors.
A study of noise levels on the London underground showed that parts of the Northern and Jubilee lines are so loud they would require hearing protection if they were workplaces and on sections of the Victoria line noise levels are similar to being at a rock concert. Not great for those travelling or working on them every day.
And that’s without all the human sounds — talking, eating, drinking. And of course, the perennial commuters noise complaint…
Headphones, earphones, earbuds
We’re all familiar with the tsk tsk tsk of someone else’s music leaking from their headphones and finding its way into our ears*. I don’t know how many times we have to be told that playing our music too loud through headphones is bad for our hearing health, because we clearly aren’t listening (sorry!). I understand that if our surroundings are noisy, then we want to turn up the music so we can hear it, but all this does is turn into is a musical battle royale of who has the loudest device or is the biggest asshole. Noise-cancelling headphones can help by reducing the sound levels around you, meaning you don’t have to turn your device up so loud. But they can be expensive. So how about turning off your music, taking off your headphones and experiencing the environment around you? We need to become better at listening to the world around us so we know what noises we need to keep and which ones we should work to remove or reduce (see above for excessive train noise).
*Worse still are the people who don’t use headphones or earphones and play their music direct from their device — there’s a special place in hell for them, and there are days I’d happily help them get there quicker. If I talk about them any more I’ll get very sweary, so I’ll just say this, “We do not want to hear your music/ podcast/ programme you selfish prick.”
So, this one breaks down in a couple of ways. Firstly, those people who have every kind of beep, buzz and ping screaming away at them trying to get their attention. Have you not read the stories or watched the Netflix documentary about how Silicon Valley is playing with our brains with every notification their phones and apps send. Or is your life just so important that you have to immediately react to every piece of news, post and text that comes your way? Every time I get a new device I turn off every notification — not only is better for my mental health and wellbeing but also for those around me. I’ve also been know to do the same on other people’s devices- mainly my Mum’s phone which used to emit a veritable symphony of electronic stress.
Secondly, those people who think they have to shout into their phones. A subset of this is people who hold their phones in front of their face when they loudly speak into it — it might be that I’m getting old and this is the cool new way to do it, or you just look like a muppet. Both of these types of people need to have their mobile phone privileges removed until they learn to speak into them properly and quietly.
Ok, so, honestly I am looking forward to a bit of normality, getting outside, paying someone to bring me a glass of wine (it’s a bit odd when I tip my husband!). But noise is a big stressor for me and many others. We’ve had a year of changes to our sound environment, going up and down the decibel scale depending on what the government was allowing us to do at the time. We’ve come to appreciate the sound of nature, especially birdsong, and it would be a shame if we lost that to the returning noise of humanity.
Featured image by Rich Smith on Unsplash.