Gail Richard is president of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and a faculty member in the Department of Communication Disorders and Sciences at Eastern Illinois University.
I’m deaf in one ear. When I dine out, I prefer to be seated with that ear against the window or wall and my good ear aimed toward my companions. But at especially loud restaurants, I can’t hear anyone who isn’t right next to me, no matter where I sit.
I’m certainly not alone. Loud restaurants have become a widespread bane of customers. The most desperate have even reported wearing noise-canceling headphones out to dinner.
Such drastic measures are increasingly necessary. From a health perspective, we should be as worried about the rising decibels of our favorite neighborhood joints and national chains as we are about their ballooning portion sizes.
The decibel levels at many popular dining spots are rising above what audiologists consider safe for extended periods. Consistently listening to noise levels above 70 decibels can cause hearing loss over time. And it is not unusual for restaurant reviewers who regularly list restaurant noise in their reviews to find levels above 70 and even 80 decibels. Our dining habits could be damaging our hearing.
Hearing loss is America’s third most widespread chronic health condition — more common than diabetes or cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And noise encountered in everyday life is more of a culprit than you might suspect. A recent CDC study found that 1 in 5 U.S. adults who had a hearing test and reported no noise exposure at work had hearing damage most likely caused by everyday environmental noise. Teens and young adults are at risk of noise-induced hearing loss, too — 1.1 billion of them around the world, according to the World Health Organization.
Many restaurateurs believe they’re giving restaurant-goers what they want by building high volume into the design of their spaces. Sleek surfaces made of wood, marble and other materials that don’t absorb sound are staples of a typical 21st century dining experience. An open floor plan that amplifies patron noise is part of the “vibe.”
But all that din in the dining room may not be as good for the bottom line as restaurant owners think — not to mention the hearing health of the restaurant workers regularly exposed to it. Consumer Reports says noise is the top complaint among restaurant patrons it surveyed last year, above bad service. And a recent poll conducted by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association revealed that more than 30 percent of people 18 and older say loud noises reduce their enjoyment of out-of-home leisure activities, including restaurants; more than a quarter have chosen not to go back to a place that is too noisy.
If eateries want to keep their customers — and show they care about the public’s hearing just as much as they care about complying with health standards in the kitchen — there are steps they can take. They can create “quiet zones” for diners with hearing loss and others who prefer a less noisy scene. In addition, simple adjustments to a restaurant’s decor — such as draperies, acoustic tiles, partitions and carpeting — can improve sound absorption, break up the noise and protect people’s ears.
Consumers and restaurant workers also can take action. There are apps you can download to monitor noise level. And if a venue is too loud, don’t be sheepish: Put in foam earplugs or don those noise-canceling headphones. And it might sound obvious, but you can also ask restaurant managers to turn down music or move you to a quieter part of the dining room. I’m never shy about making either of these requests when I dine out, and restaurant staff are usually willing to accommodate.
Finally, more restaurant reviewers could list decibel levels alongside stars when they review restaurants, as The Post’s Tom Sietsema has done for years. This allows consumers to protect their hearing health, either by choosing not to go to a particular restaurant or by calling ahead to ask for a quiet table.
When people go to sporting events or concerts, they expect it to be loud and may bring along earplugs. A restaurant, on the other hand, is not a venue people go to thinking, “This could hurt my hearing.” But maybe they should — at least until more restaurateurs recognize that reducing noise is the right thing to do.