LOUD Dining Environments: Should We ALL Suffer in NOISE ?

During a recent visit with my husband to an Atlanta area restaurant, we were subjected to something that many diners around the United States have more and more come to recognize … and detest – the excessive loudness of restaurants’ dining environments.

The two of us had just been seated at our reserved table when the waiter began telling us about the chef’s daily specials. As the waiter proceeded through the offerings, both my husband and I leaned over toward him in a vain attempt to take in even part of what he was saying. Then the waiter finished and said that he would be back shortly with water for both of us. My husband immediately leaned toward me and raised his voice to ask if I had heard what the specials were. I vigorously shook my head “No” and replied to him that I had only been able to approximate every third word that the waiter had said. Each of us had frowns on our faces as we realized that our “dining experience” was doomed to be a very noisy one, one where normal conversation would not be possible.
Unfortunately, this type of dining experience has become all too common in Atlanta as well as in other cities. As an audiologist with normal hearing, I was greatly frustrated trying to communicate in such an environment; I can only imagine the difficulties experienced by many of our patients with less than optimal hearing. The words that first come to my mind are “impossible to communicate.” Others find some environments so distressing that they describe them as “unbearable and unnecessary” or “annoying and stressful” or even “physically painful and subsequently choose “to give it up”.
What Is Going On Here?
Many new restaurants seem to be designing their spaces with what they think is a more contemporary look with the high ceilings, wood floors, and a great number of glass windows. Recently, many restaurants have also done away with carpeting, heavy curtains, table linens and plush banquettes. The result? Fewer soft, sound-absorbing materials which pushes many patrons’ priority of enjoyment and pleasant conversation to the back seat. As we have discovered, many restaurant customers rate their overall dining experience based on a variety of factors, which include not only the quality of the food enjoyed but the company and the total experience.
Customers Can Vote With their Dining Dollars
Many potential customers have decided to respond to the noisy environments which exist in restaurants by refusing to patronize them. Such actions may take time to have an impact, but should eventually pose a problem for restaurants that fail to take corrective action.

A recent online Omnivore article in Atlanta’s Creative Loafing magazine (August 2011 – posted by Cliff Bostock) addressed the problem of excessively noisy restaurant spaces when it published an email from a Decatur resident regarding a local restaurant. The article also included a number of additional reader comments that expressed dismay with loud restaurants and promised to “vote with their checkbooks.”

In addition, the well-known Zagat Survey, which publishes restaurant guides, is currently considering expanding their rating system to include noise level. Its current restaurant rating categories include: food, décor, service, and cost.

An Audiologist’s Thoughts
During daily conversations with all our patients of all ages, I have heard the following statement more times than I can count: “When I go to certain restaurants I cannot converse with my dinner guest! It is stressful and frustrating.”

Having a hearing impairment certainly makes it difficult to hear in certain listening situations but these challenging environments are difficult for normal hearing people as well. The improvement in hearing aid technology has made a positive difference but even the best of technology has its limits. We must be realistic in what we expect from the technology AND be our own advocate in the “restaurant scene”.

An Audiologist’s advice for a quieter, more peaceful dining experience:

• If possible, sit in tables in alcoves, which provide a barricade against sound waves
• Avoid sitting in locations near the bar or kitchen
• Avoid sitting near large parties
• Ask for additional light, and look at your dining companion when he or she speaks. Without realizing it we do read lips.
• Request that management turn the music down, even if you get dirty looks. Not only does this reduce noise, but it will result in people talking more softly.
• If possible (most likely online) look at photographs of the restaurant ahead of time. No carpet or table cloths and boxy dimensions should raise “noisy” red flags.

In closing … Bon Appetit

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