For the past 16 months we have, for the most part, been living in a much quieter world. As we return to a new version of the old world, we may be surprised at the volume of it. For the sake of comparison, a whisper registers around 30 decibels (dB), a normal conversation is about 60 dB, a lawnmower is about 90 dB, and a loud rock concert is about 120 dB. Sustained sounds over 85 decibels can cause hearing loss, and those hitting 150 decibels are usually considered enough to burst your eardrums.
Pre-pandemic, we were used to the clanking of plates, boisterous conversation, and loud music in restaurants—even the hissing of the frother at the corner coffee shop. This past year, educators could simply hit the mute button instead of being overwhelmed by students talking over one another, cheering, or laughing.
It’s exciting that life is getting back to normal, but for those of us with hearing challenges, re-adjusting to the volume of the world will take some thoughtful consideration. Here is a list of the top loudest everyday environments that you will likely notice in a way you never did before:
1) Restaurants – Today, restaurants are designed to be open and easy to clean, which means there are few to no soft or porous surfaces to act as sound absorbers. To cover up the noise of food prep and service, bars and restaurants turn up the volume on music, forcing us to speak louder just to be heard or to lean in in order to participate in a conversation. A typical restaurant operates at 80 dB, but some are known to reach 110 dB – the ear-damaging levels of a jackhammer!
2) Coffee Shops – Entrepreneurs, small businesses, and startups have been conducting meetings in coffee shops for years because they’re less expensive than stocking conference rooms and are convenient. However, it is also a very loud environment with espresso machines, microwaves, people talking, and employees shouting orders. Milk frothers’ high-pitched screeching and hissing are a particular irritation to those with difficulty hearing.
3) Classrooms & Daycare – Classrooms full of kids, especially very young ones, can feel and sound chaotic, and cutting through the clamor to hear or be heard is a challenge. Not to say that homeschooling was easy, but parents and teachers re-entering the in-person classroom might be shocked at the noise levels.
4) Airplanes – In spite of the airtight environment, airplanes are loud. The roar of the engines presents obstacles both to passengers, who have to shout to be heard and to airline attendants, who have to lean in to hear drink orders and requests. According to the CDC, aircraft engines and high-speed turbulence over the fuselage are the largest sources of noise on planes. Announcements and mechanical noises from food and beverage service are other sources of noise. A study of noise onboard an Airbus A321 aircraft reported levels of 60-65 decibels (dBA) before takeoff; 80-85 dBA during flight; and 75-80 dBA during landing. Enduring that for a long overseas trip can take a toll on your ears.
5) Gym – A lot of us are excited to return safely to the gym or fitness center, however it is full of loud noises from weights clanking to the sounds of fans and machines running. While the loud music helps us make it up the steep hill on a stationary bike, it also means that the instructor must communicate through a microphone. The one-hour workout might leave your ears ringing.
6) Sporting Events & Arenas – Sports events are exciting, and people are especially happy to return to stadiums to cheer on their favorite team, but don’t be disappointed if the hotdog guy forgets your ketchup. He most likely can’t hear you.
In 2017, Kansas City Chiefs fans set a Guinness World Record at Arrowhead Stadium by being the loudest stadium ever. Cheering fans collectively hit 142.2 dB, which is louder than an aircraft carrier flight deck! Allen Fieldhouse, home to the Kansas Jayhawks, later became known as the “loudest college basketball arena in the US” with two Guinness World Records and coming in at a 130.4 dB. Check out this top 10 list of loudest sports stadiums.
7) Concert Venues – This one’s a no-brainer. Hearing a favorite band live and at top volume is a memorable experience, but those giant speakers and the crowds yelling over them do a number on your ears.
As we all re-emerge from the relative quiet of our quarantine lives, we are going to have to reacclimate to the volume of the world. Some of us will be reminded of our hearing challenges and have to find new ways to accommodate them.