Tackling background noise in restaurants, cafes and pubs

ilk-4People of all ages can find it difficult to communicate in restaurants, cafés and pubs where background noise can reach very high levels – whether it be music or the general clatter caused by the acoustics of the space. Luke Dixon, campaigner at Action on Hearing Loss, outlines the problem and calls on managers of  spaces made for socialising to make sure noise levels make them  fit for social interaction.  

For many of us, dining out is first and foremost about socialising. Restaurants, cafés and pubs aren’t just places we go to eat and drink; they’re where we go to spend time with those close to us. Be it an evening meal with your family, a quick coffee and a snack with an old friend, or after-work drinks with colleagues, restaurants, cafés and pubs are where spend our money, and we expect to be well provided for when we do. Many would prefer a chat to a shouting match over coffee and cake.

What’s the problem?
A change in interior design trends over the last five years has seen many venues develop a more industrial feel, all hard surfaces and high ceilings. The design of a venue has a big impact on reverberation time: the length of time it takes for a sound to drop after the noise source has stopped generating sound. When a restaurant, café or pub is filled with wooden chairs and tables set upon bare floors, without a tablecloth or curtain in sight, the sound waves generated bounce around, creating a loud, echoey environment.
Without furnishings to absorb sound, the high level of noise created by a room full of conversations makes it much harder for many people to hold a proper conversation when dining out. When the venue plays music through the speaker system, this increases the level of background noise again. Customers then naturally raise their voices to be heard, and the problem becomes worse.
High levels of background noise affect everyone, but can make it almost impossible for a hearing aid user to hear their companions properly. This is because even the most advanced hearing aids are unable to properly distinguish speech from background noise, when it is the result of numerous other conversations occurring across the room.

What can be done?
Many venues choose to play background music to improve the atmosphere. However, it can make it hard for people to hold a conversation, and the effect worsens as customers at other tables speak over the music, increasing noise levels further.

  • Turning music down, or off altogether, is the easiest and cheapest way to improve the acoustic environment of a noisy venue.
  • Adding softer furnishings, such as carpets and tablecloths, can make a huge difference in minimising background noise.
  • Other  measures make the environment less noisy, such as rubber feet on chairs and tables and acoustic treatments. Acoustic treatments are designed to reduce noise levels within a space, either by absorbing or diffusing sound. The most suitable treatments within cafés, pubs and restaurants are wall and ceiling panels, which use the absorption method to reduce the reverberation time of sounds in the room, significantly reducing background noise.

Campaigning for change
Action on Hearing Loss will soon be launching a new campaign, calling on restaurants, cafés and pubs to acknowledge and tackle their background noise problem. To ensure you are kept updated of developments and how you can get involved, you can join Action on Hearing Loss’ campaign network here.

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