Woman making the
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When I was in high school, I had an alarm clock that I truly hated. It was not merely loud, it was hideously, harshly loud. It sounded pretty much exactly like a smoke alarm, and had precisely the same effect: it scared me senseless every time it went off. I’d wake up, all right, but in such an anxious state that I came to associate the early morning with feelings of terror. Knowing a thing or two about electronics, I decided to perform surgery on the clock and modify it so that instead of making noise, it would flash a bright light in my face when the alarm went off. My modification worked—at least in the sense that the light flashed at the appointed time. What I hadn’t thought through was the fact that at the time the alarm went off, my eyes would be closed (and, more often than not, turned away and buried in a pillow), so while the light flashed merrily away, I kept on sleeping. My invention merely swapped the stress created by a noisy alarm clock for the stress created by being late for school.

Whether due to this adolescent trauma or for more mundane reasons of genetics or environment, I have had an aversion to noise almost as long as I can remember. My idea of a good time is visiting a library, cathedral, or desert location where the loudest sound is that of a page turning or wind blowing; my idea of torture is trying to write while someone is operating a leaf blower outside, having an otherwise quiet walk ruined by loud traffic, or trying to hold a conversation on a noisy train. If you were to plot my stress level on a graph alongside a graph of the ambient sound level, you’d probably find significant correlations. I used to think my preference for quiet was abnormal if not pathological, until one day I typed “quiet” into a search engine and came up with the Right to Quiet Society and the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, two of numerous organizations dedicated to the promotion of quiet. There is in fact a rather large and diverse anti-noise pollution movement afoot, and being a fan of quiet, I find this notion extremely interesting.

Now Hear This

Broadly speaking, there are two main types of what is commonly called noise pollution: low-level, continuous background noise; and extremely loud but intermittent noise. Examples of background noise include radios or TVs left on all the time, appliances such as refrigerators and air conditioners, computers and other devices with cooling fans, and traffic sounds. Loud intermittent noises are things like planes flying overhead, leaf blowers, sirens, vacuum cleaners, and PA systems in clubs and concert venues. Typically the anti-noise groups focus on the second type of noise, citing extensive research on noise-related health concerns: hearing damage from extended exposure to high levels of sound; sleep loss; psychological trauma; and increased stress levels resulting in high blood pressure, aggressive behavior, and even suicide. But there is also a significant drive to reduce background noises, because even though they may not result in hearing loss, the cumulative long-term effect of low-volume but persistent unwanted sounds can have significant impact on one’s mental health and stress level.

It can be tricky business drawing the line between “sound” and “noise,” and even the most ardent anti-noise activists agree that context plays a significant role in determining what should be considered noise or, more specifically, noise pollution. Very loud sounds, however sonorous they may be, can cause hearing damage after a period of time, so it would be fair to call a Bach cantata “music” at 80 decibels but “noise” at 130. Likewise, I may enjoy listening to loud music at a concert, but the very same music at the same volume would be noise pollution if it’s occurring in the next room when I’m trying to sleep. On the other hand, there are loud noises that would not be called “pollution.” I want to be disturbed by noises like sirens, back-up alarms, or gunfire when they are necessary to alert me to danger. So the generally agreed-upon definition of “noise” is sound that is unwanted or distracting, and “noise pollution” is the term used for unnecessary, excessive environmental noise.

Crying For Silence

Anti-noise pollution groups have a wide variety of aims. Some concern themselves exclusively with aircraft noise in residential areas, for example; others seek more broadly to regulate any noise (factories, motorcycles, lawnmowers, watercraft, etc.) that threatens the peace and tranquility of the population. There are also movements to regulate workplace noise, to set and enforce safe standards for sound at concerts and clubs, and to reduce or eliminate background music at shopping malls, medical offices, and other public places. The overall message is that second-hand noise is a lot like second-hand smoke: it’s one thing if you want to damage your own health, but quite another to inflict noise on other people nearby who cannot escape it, and yet suffer because of it.

There are more examples of noise pollution than I can possibly list here; more appear every time I turn around. The problem is that most people have become so accustomed to constant noise that they simply don’t notice it anymore. You’ve probably seen signs asking you to turn off your phone in a museum or refrain from talking during movies—these requests must be made explicitly because otherwise it would simply never occur to many people that such sounds might be offensive. The biggest aim of the anti-noise pollution organizations is therefore simply to bring the dangers and annoyances of noise into the public awareness, at which point, they hope, a majority of people will be outraged enough to do something about it—either voluntarily or through legislation. I wish them, of course, the best of luck, though I can’t help noticing the irony of the squeaky-wheel effect: those who complain the loudest tend to get heard, and loudness is precisely the opposite of what anti-noise pollution activists stand for.

Epilogue: The Noisy American

I have traveled to many parts of the world, and based on what I’ve witnessed, I have developed a nearly foolproof metric for identifying Americans: the volume of their voices. English is not intrinsically louder than any other language, but Americans, as a group, tend to speak more loudly than any other nationality I’ve encountered in my travels—even if they’re speaking the local language. I’ve asked people in several other countries if this has been their experience as well, and so far, everyone has agreed with me. This is, of course, a gross overgeneralization, a completely unscientific and unfair one. But I have to wonder: could it be a simple matter of habitually compensating for what has become an incredibly high ambient noise level? How’s that? Oh, I said, “I HAVE TO WONDER…”

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on July 7, 2004.