From ancient marketplaces to the ubiquitous inns and pubs of the Middle Ages to the loud restaurants that serve as our modern centers of commerce, we have always conducted business around food and drink. In 2019, Dr. Megan Elias, director of the gastronomy program at Boston University, told NPR that “food and business have been linked since as far back as the ancient Sumer (who established civilization as we know it around 4000 B.C.). Why is it that we need to eat while we work? It could be that the simple camaraderie of a shared meal breaks down defenses, making strategic conversations easier.
While the custom of meeting and treating important clients in restaurants became firmly established in the 1950s, back then the gentle clink of ice against glass and a little soft piano music under hushed voices was the acoustic norm. Fast forward, and today we have a party atmosphere in noisy coffee shops, edgy urban bars and rooftop bars with swimming pools. Even when we are not engaged in working lunches at loud restaurants, we are conducting meetings with colleagues in open workspaces and crowded conference rooms.
Design-wise, thick carpeting and luxurious drapes have given way to clean lines and sanitary spaces that provide no acoustic defense against music and conversation, which bounce around the room and create a clamor it's nearly impossible to hear through. Dishes clank, music thumps, and people shout over the noise to be heard. What is a hearing-challenged mover-and-shaker to do?
In recent years, restaurant reviewers have noted noise level averages of 80 dBA and higher in eating establishments around the country. Prolonged exposure to this volume of noise can cause ringing in the ears and even hearing loss with long-term exposure. For those who already struggle to hear, it can feel as if the sounds are bouncing off every surface of a loud restaurant, making for an extremely difficult environment in which to conduct business. And now that a loud, party-like atmosphere has become the norm, restaurant and café owners are not willing to sacrifice ambiance in order to spare their customers' hearing.
While the custom of wining-and-dining clients isn't going anywhere, and, unfortunately, neither are the loud restaurants, we are finally seeing some attention being given to peoples' discomfort in noisy environments. The San Francisco Chronicle now reports the decibel ratings of eating establishments so that people can make a choice to avoid loud restaurants, as necessary. The value of this ranking can make the difference between accidentally accepting the merger when you thought you were ordering a burger!
We also recommend the Soundprint App, which measures a venue's decibel level and lists community-generated ratings for sound levels in public places (think Yelp for noise). It can be a real help in finding just the right atmosphere for your next dinner or business meeting. Finally, for the times when loud restaurants can't be avoided, Noopl is a subtle and effective way to clarify hearing so you can't participate in important conversations.