How Our Increasing, Unnecessary Noise Symbolizes Lack of Care For One Another.

And, the ways in which excessive noise pollution harms us.

image by Seth Doyle from

One singular, small snapshot of a scene in which things are getting noisier:

The location is South Boston. Things used to be, aside from rare, brief exceptions, generally quiet during weekdays. You might hear a car whooshing past, or when construction is happening, a jackhammer off and on during the day. That aside, though, it was relatively peaceful.

Noise, though, and especially of the unnecessary sort, is increasing.

Now, in a closely contained cluster of about 10 balconies, all within earshot and earshot of one another, almost every day, at least one person (though often, more than one) takes Skype or Zoom calls on their balcony. This would be no issue, except that the call is held on speakerphone, at loud volume, and sans headphone.

This way, others who are sitting on their balconies and who were previously might have been enjoying the birds chirping, the sounds of a blowing breeze, leaves rustling, and otherwise, a mostly peaceful respite save for cars passing sporadically, are then forced into hearing this blaring, harsh, obnoxious electronic voice sounding throughout the air.

This person on their Zoom call, pressing the jarring, loud, unnecessary electronic noise on everyone surrounding. When easily, they could just use headphones.

Because the purpose of headphones is exactly this: to contain your personal noise to your ears only, so it isn't forced on others, out of consideration for others. Headphones also aren’t a difficult thing. In fact, they are a small, relatively simple thing to both acquire and use. And anyone living in South Boston is almost certainly able to afford a pair of headphones. You can get a cheap set that works well for about $20.

Many Americans don’t seem to care about any longer or even consider this concept though. The concept of their behavior and their unnecessary noise being pressed on others, ruining the mental and emotional peace of someone else. And, this ditching of headphones is becoming a more widespread trend and choice.

Within regular, everyday life, it used to be a rarity that one would see a person walking around with their phone blaring forth on speakerphone, either engaged in a phone call or when watching a video. Most people, instead, wore headphones. Now, the situation seems to be steadily reversing. Headphones are the exception. Today, it is commonplace and a several-times-a-day occurrence to walk past people talking on Facetime over their phone, the volume dialed up, and no headphones, so that everyone passing and surround is forced to hear their entire phone call, on both sides.

People walk around blasting music from their phones or watching videos aloud. They play games on their devices during otherwise quiet bus and train rides, again, with the volume on so everyone on the bus is made to hear it. They sit on their porches and balconies, watching Instagram and YouTube clips, not at a particularly low volume, so all passerby's get to hear it too.

I’m curious as to what has become difficult about the concept of headphones…?

The easy answer is this: there is nothing difficult about headphones.

The disappointing and disheartening answer is, instead, that most people simply just don’t care about the feelings or needs of other people. This is especially prevalent in America, whereas, in numerous other countries, you would never come across such behavior as a person forcing their unnecessary, jarring noise on others. Instead, countless other people would either use headphones or, they would wait until in a situation where their noise would not be forced upon other people.

Americans have decided they cannot be bothered with such thoughtfulness and consideration. At least, most of them. They want to do what they want when they want it, and how they want it. Other people? Who are they? “I live my best life and you do you,” we individualistic Americans tout. This self-centered sentiment frequently coming at the cost of other people’s well-being, thoughts, or feelings.

Personally, I would feel mortified and ashamed if, somehow by accident (as I would never do it on purpose), my phone began blasting music during a public bus or train ride, or when out walking down the street among lots of people. I would never even think to put a telephone conversation I was having on speakerphone because 1. I wouldn’t want to and don’t need to broadcast what is my personal conversation with a loved one, and 2. I would be embarrassed and would feel ashamed and self-conscious, knowing I am likely bothering other people by pressing my unnecessary noise on them.

There are many people out there who, thankfully, feel the same way. Those who consider the thoughts, feelings, and mental well-being of others. People who respect the manners and considerations of public space. Others who actually contemplate how their personal behavior might impact those around them, and who then base their behavior going forward on these thoughts.

This is called empathy. It is called thoughtfulness, respect, and considering your fellow men and women. It is called manners.

Sadly, too many people do not feel any of the ways I just described. They don’t care who hears their conversation. The more people? Probably the better. Because in our “look at me, look at me” world, that’s our currency of the moment: attention.

And, again, in our me, me, me, highly individualistic American culture, one in which my feelings, and my wants, and my opinions, and my rights all come first because I live for me (has anyone not stopped to examine these mantras and realize them for the utmost selfishness that they are?), it makes sense that people don’t give two hoots about their noise and the effect it might have on others.

It isn’t especially surprising that right now, America is imploding. We’ve all receded into ourselves. Our greatest concern: me.

And when you cannot see past yourself…well, there is not much of a community that exists in such a place. Nor are people bound to connect deeply with one another, nor care much for each other.

Another reason for this inconsiderate behavior that is going viral is likely the fact that bad behavior spreads. Research has shown that one bad apple in a bucket of good apples does not then change into a good apple. Instead, the bad apple contaminates the bucket and way more people become “bad apples.” People see others behaving badly, and with little to no consequences, and think to themselves, gee, why do I bother following the rules then? To heck with it.

This is connected with our societal seguing it’s way into normalized rudeness. People so frequently dismiss, diss, turn away from, half pay attention to, and even ignore altogether their in-person companions for their phones that we’ve decided on a trendy term for it: phubbing. It’s become normalized to be rude to others. And because it’s “normal” and “everyone does it,” even people who initially may have felt uneasy about it become more comfortable with such behavior. It spreads. When something is deemed “normal,” we tend not to give it much depth of thought. We just go along with it. (At least, most people do so).

In addition to the cell phone conundrum, people have begun setting off fireworks every. Single. Night. Over the last two ish weeks, this has become a given on each evening, without fail (at least in South Boston). Once the Fourth of July arrives, I likely won’t even notice. At this point, it isn’t going to be different from any other evening.

People also drive by frequently throughout the early to mid-evening, music thumping loudly from their cars. Sometimes even sounding loudly out the windows so that every lyric can be deciphered. People on foot walk by, yelling to one another and booming music aloud from their cell phones.

While in this article, while I may come across as the ultimate curmudgeon, my feelings on noise are far from relegated to solely myself. Scientists have known for decades that noise — even at the seemingly innocuous volume of car traffic — is bad for us.

“Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience,” former U.S. Surgeon General William Stewart said. Numerous studies have only underscored his assertion that noise “must be considered a hazard to the health of people everywhere.”

Experts say your body does not adapt to noise. Large-scale studies show that if the din keeps up — over days, months, years — noise exposure increases your risk of coronary heart disease, and heart attacks, as well as strokes, diabetes, dementia, and emotional misery.

When we adjust to hearing constant noise, with earbuds ever stuffed in our ears and music playing forth through them, in attending concerts and sporting events set to a deafening degree of sound, and spending time ever in environments with lots of music, cell phones dinging, and radios blaring, we become can become censored to certain nuances of sound. Then, on the rare occasions that one is out and about and it isn’t especially noisy, they might not be as privy to lesser sounds. Say, someone walking up quietly behind you, or, the sound of wind rustling the trees. This is, at its least, a loss of certain richness of natural sounds. At its worst, it’s dangerous.

If we are constantly surrounded by sound, from keyboards clacking to calls conducted on speakerphone, to horns honking and copying machines printing, to footfalls sounding overhead and doors randomly slamming, this steals from us a chance to both relax and focus deeply.

If one is always on edge, anticipating the next sound to come, they are unable to relax fully. This breeds quiet anxiety and a sense of uneasy anticipation. One’s brain becomes trained and ever waiting for the next jarring noise to come.

This also pulls you from the chance to immerse yourself fully in something (say, a book, doing research, a quiet one-on-one conversation, writing, or doing complicated mathematics) because the continual sounds interrupt and are ever chipping away at and distracting you from such a possibility.

Did you know that research and medical studies have shown that the human brain is at its most productive and active, working at its most efficient and optimal, in the moments between sound? Yes, that’s right. Our brain is at its most effective in moments of pause and quiet. Within silence, the brain is in a highly anticipatory state and thus, at its best.

A landmark study published in 1975 found that the reading scores of sixth graders whose classroom faced a clattering subway track lagged nearly a year behind those of students in quieter classrooms — a difference that disappeared once soundproofing materials were installed.

Noise might also make us mean: A 1969 study suggested that test subjects exposed to noise, even the gentle fuzz of white noise, become more aggressive and more eager to zap fellow subjects with electric shocks.

In an article from The Atlantic, Why Everything is Getting Louder, this passage speaks to the point of how noise disrupts our ability to feel relaxed, a sense of personal autonomy in our life, and to just feel generally good.

“Noise — or what the professionals call a “very dynamic acoustic environment” — can provoke people to murderous extremes, especially when the emitter disturbs the receiver at home. After repeated attempts to quiet his raucous neighbor, a Fort Worth, Texas, father of two, perturbed by loud music at 2 a.m., called the police, who came, left, and returned less than an hour later, after the man had allegedly shot his neighbor three times — an incident not to be confused with the time a Houston man interrupted his neighbor’s late-night party and, after a showdown over noise, shot and killed the host. In New York City, a former tour-bus driver fed up with noisy parties across the hall allegedly sought help from a hitman.”

“A man in Pennsylvania said to have had no more trouble with the law than a traffic ticket, ambushed an upstairs couple with whom he’d had noise disputes, shooting them and then himself, and leaving behind a sticky note that read, “Can only be provoked so long before exploding.” There’s the man accused of threatening his noisy neighbors with a gun, the man who shot a middle-school coach after they quarreled over noise, the man who fired on a mother and daughter after griping about sounds from their apartment, the man who killed his roommate after a futile request that he “quiet down,” and the woman who shot at a neighbor after being asked to turn down her music — all since the beginning of this year.”

Because, as The Atlantic points out, noise is never just about noise.

It’s also another person or subject imposing their narrative on others, often against their preference or will.

It is, thus, inseparable from feelings of power and powerlessness.

Noise is a violation we can’t control and to which, because of our anatomy, we cannot close ourselves off.

Thus, it’s no wonder people get depressed and even angry when inundated by noise. They experience a sense of powerlessness against preventing things we do not wish to experience, feel, or hear can spark resentment, anxiety, despair, and yes, anger.

The world is getting noisier. There are few places we can venture any longer to find quiet, peace, and respite.

Noise inundates the majority of our waking hours at varying levels, and all too frequently nowadays, to an unnecessary, disruptive, disturbing degree. And while some of these sounds are unavoidable and part of life, others are excessive, unnecessary, and thoughtlessly, inconsiderately produced.

What is surprising and concerning is the lack of interest or awareness people have towards this issue, which is fast becoming a major problem. In my daily life moving through the city of Boston, I encounter this thoughtlessness multiple times every day. What used to be occasional is now frequent, in terms of people blaring noise from their cell phones or laptops when sitting out in public (again, why no headphones?), people talking at a booming volume on the bus or train rather than in a more hushed tone, cranking the music in their car and rolling down the windows as they drive around, setting up their phone to play music aloud in an otherwise quiet park, sitting at the beach on their laptop with a Skype call underway and no headphones being used, so we all have to hear it. The list of examples can go on.

Gym classes have grown louder, to ear-splitting volumes. Sporting events and concerts have similarly amplified in volume.

Peace and quiet are rapidly receding into the horizon as things of the past. Lack of consideration, decreased kindness, and conscientiousness toward others is also playing into it. This is harming us in numerous ways.

Noise pollution is a public health crisis, and a serious one.

We each need to do what we can, and now, to reduce the unnecessary, additional noises that we ourselves might be making (for starters, cell phone pings and dings, and videos played aloud on phones- use headphones and set the phone to vibrate or mute. You don’t need to impress this noise meant for you, on everyone else).

And there is no need to treat everyone on the bus to hear both sides of your phone conversation via speakerphone. Trust us. We’d much prefer you relegated it to your ears only. This will require a small effort and a degree of thought for others. This is a choice we must decide to make, to consider the feelings of other people surrounding and not only our own immediate desires. Let’s bring back a sense of consideration, thought, and care for the ear canals and mental health of others.

A degree of noise is, of course, unavoidable in daily living. However, a significant number of the sounds and noisiness throughout our lives is human created and personal and thus, can be controlled and even quelled.

Let’s remember allowing others their personal peace, an opportunity for deep thought, and a sense of concern toward others. The culture of our cities and the mental and physical health of its citizens depend on it. Because we stand to lose much amidst all this racket. We lose a part of ourselves.

Fervent writer. Ravenous reader. Impassioned with words. Relationship researcher. Social Scientist. Social Justice Advocate. Author.

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