Speak Easy: reducing background noise in restaurants, cafés and pubs

Busy restaurant

Last year Luke from Action on Hearing Loss asked if you’re fed up with noisy cafés, pubs and restaurants. Your response was overwhelming, so Luke is here again to tell us about their new campaign…

You may well remember that last October, we started a conversation about noisy restaurants, cafés and pubs.  Hundreds of you shared your thoughts  and many more contributed to Action on Hearing Loss’ survey, designed to get to the heart of the problem.

That conversation has now become a movement, as this week we at Action on Hearing Loss have launched the Speak Easy campaign, calling on the hospitality industry to take noise off the menu.

Background noise

The message was clear: background noise is by far the biggest problem you face when eating out. Many of you shared your frustrations with venues determined to play music at high volumes, even when 92% of those who participated in our survey said they’d like to see it turned down.

But it’s also been made clear that environmental noise – whether it’s the scraping of chairs across the floor or the scream and rattle of a coffee machine – has a huge impact on the ability to hold a conversation.

Many people noted that a change in interior design trends, with most venues getting rid of tablecloths, carpets, curtains and other sound absorbing furnishings, has also contributed to the problem. No wonder then that 77% of said that restaurants, cafés and pubs have become noisier in the last five years.

Next steps for the campaign

Action on Hearing Loss has presented all of the key findings from last year’s survey in the new Speak Easy report, which makes the case to the hospitality industry that they risk losing millions of customers  fed up with noisy venues.

We’ve also published the Speak Easy guide, which presents eight ways venues can create a more welcoming environment. These solutions range from simply turning background music down or off, through to installing specialised acoustic panels to absorb excess noise and make it easier for customers to hold a conversation.

We’ll be writing to the biggest players in the UK hospitality sector, sharing our report and guide with them and asking them to work with us to improve their acoustic environment.

You’ve already played a huge part in shaping the Speak Easy campaign, and we’d love for you to take a leading role now Speak Easy is underway.

This is a guest contribution by Luke Dixon of Action on Hearing Loss. All opinions are Luke’s own, not necessarily those of Which?

Trisha Todd says:
12 July 2016

Can you also start a campaign for reducing the volume of music in shops? I swear they think they are nightclubs, and in the end I leave without purchasing as I can’t think. I also object to having to shout to the assistant.

Trisha, spot on! It seems reasonable to expect to hear people in conversation all around you, and the noise of cutlery and crockery, but what I find intrusive and a pain is any music that is being played. Invariably you can’t hear yourself, or your companion(s), above the noise and so, inevitably, everyone ups the volume of their conversation. Or else, you end up leaning forward and speaking directly into each other’s ear in order to hear each other!
While I’m on a roll…I also dislike how some cafes, bars and restaurants, when a certain time of the evening is reached, dim the lights. This might be apt if you are having a romantic dinner for two but not good if you’re having drinks with friends or a night out with colleagues from work, when it feels like you’re having to peer at everyone.

Throughout my adult life I have been aware that I struggle to hear people in noisy environments, though I have no problem at other times. I don’t enjoy being in an environment where I have to raise my voice to be heard by others. When I was younger I tried to find a quieter part of a room, but now I just walk out.

There is a new burger chain called “5 Guys” and the music is loud ,… I really do mean loud , louD, loUD, lOUD, LOUD!!!!!! Everyone is shouting and screaming at each other. I mean everyone … the customer, the person taking the order at the till, the people preparing the food and the person releasing the completed order. Everyone is yelling at each other because the music is so loud and there is nothing to absorb the sound….. and I thought the volume of the music in Marks and Spencer was bad. Every time I have been to a “5 Guys” I have made mistakes with my orders, you just can not concentrate and just can not be heard and be understood …. and then if you discover that your order was not what you thought you asked for you are yelling and screaming at the staff to correct it. It is such an exhausting place but the hot dogs and the bowl of salad and chips are are absolutely delicious (I don’t eat the bread).. All the branches I have visited are the same .. Islington, Oxford Circus, Charing Cross, Miami, New York. I try and eat outside if possible .. it is absolutely manic inside.

Never heard of them! Thankfully (from what you say) they obviously haven’t reached rural England yet. There is however an answer – don’t eat there!

Sounds like you should boycott them – and tell them why!

Absolutely agree that the noise levels are too much! It’s not just about noise – it can impact on people with a range of conditions and ends up meaning they are excluded from social situations. As someone who has an autistic family member – he sometimes walks straight in and straight out of a venue overwhelmed by the sound – and often faces quite abrupt responses or refusal to turn things down.

Restaurants like wagamama’s where he likes the food, can only be visited early on a weekday evening because when it is busy the acoustics are too much. Even Greggs bakery has the radio on so loud that we left when they ignored his request to turn it down (maybe they had been listening too long and really couldn’t hear him)!

Having friends with hearing loss and tinnitus i know how it really affects their ability to be part of a conversation when there is a lot of noise going on and sometimes… Sometimes, I too would just like a bit of peace!

Luke, you say you will be writing to the biggest players in the UK hospitality sector, but will you also be talking to TripAdvisor, the List, Bookatable and other reviewing “communities” to try and persuade them to have a Speak Easy category added to the service/decor/food/drink criteria? I’d love to be able to give a mark next to a noise icon to restaurants, pubs, shops, and shopping malls (and my dental practice!!). I would also love to be able to zoom in on that when I look at reviews and try out/avoid places as appropriate.

I’m just back from 3 days at my favourite Scottish country hotel.

Its main restaurant has two key attractions – the excellent food and the fine sea view. There is no canned music.

Very good news that you are running an anti-noise in restaurants campaign. One problem you do not mention is groups of six or more who cause terrible noise as they shout from one end of their table to the other. Could I ask you to persuade restaurants to provide special rooms for groups. Some London restaurants do not allow groups of more than four, or children under the age of ten. Can I suggest you compile a list of quiet restaurants?

Gordon says:
16 July 2016

Excellent idea. Could you expand the campaign to include TV programmes. The inane music they play when actors are speaking makes it extremely difficult to follow the plot most of the time. Background/atmosphere music is fine but it often drowns out speech. I am hard of hearing and this has been a big problem for me for years but now my wife, who still has good hearing, is also finding it difficult to hear speech.

Muriel says:
16 July 2016

Yes Gordon but not only on programmes, STV plays music when the news round up is on. Poor diction and background music ruins most programmes

There is a small charity called Pipedown that has also been campaigning for years about piped music. http://pipedown.org.uk/about-pipedown/

I would also like to turn the volume down in cinemas, someone suggested using earplugs, which apparently bring the volume down to an acceptable level .
I no longer go to the cinema. I buy the appropriate DVD if I want to watch a particular film.

Martin says:
17 July 2016

Most cinemas use ‘ compression amplification’ which plays the whole soundtrack at maximum volume, which means that a whisper and an explosion are equally loud. I suffer from hyperacusis, a heightened sensitivity to loud noise, and have been unable to go to the cinema for many years. My friends who do not have hearing impairments also find the high volumes used in cinemas irritating and unnecessary.

In films, every motion and action is given a sound even if there is no sound in real life. So watching a film is a completely unreal experience full of whooshes and thuds. When it’s over and you step outside life seems incredibly flat and empty. This is what keeps most cinemas almost vacant for most of their opening hours as most people instinctively prefer normality.

Where has this ‘virus’ come from that fills our lives with unwanted sound? Perhaps it’s a fashion statement… a few did it and everyone else followed like sheep. What baffles me is why pubs, restaurants, shops AND tv programmers seem to have done so little market research to see whether the buying public want this pollution. It’s been a bee in my bonnet for years and I frequently simply ask in offending areas to have the background sound turned down or off, with mixed success. If enough of us did this perhaps the message might eventually get through. Who are the people who decide to install these irritating additions to our daily lives? They are the ones to be targeted and asked to explain themselves, especially tv programme editors where the spoken word is the essence of the programme.

Alex says:
17 July 2016

I have to agree with the comments here. I have found cinemas unacceptably loud for years and on the few occasions I have succumbed, I take ear plugs so that I can try to protect my own and my child’s hearing.
I like Wagamama’s food but very rarely eat there as it is like being in a public swimming pool during a kids party. My local Carluccios is little better and they have both lost a lot of trade from my family. Generally, if I enter a restaurant and hear loud music, I just walk out.
What these places should do is turn down/off the background music and install sound absorbing décor panels so the conversations and other noises do not echo round the room.

Oh, how I agree with all the comments here …. The way I deal with anything too loud is that I absolutely refuse to raise my voice above normal. It’s surprising the effect it has on the perpetrators. They will often reach for the control knob and turn it down!! If they can’t understand me I smile sweetly and walk out …

I agree.Before I grew up(?) punches often fell but now i am man!?

Alfred Layton says:
18 July 2016

Restaurant reviewers and restaurant chains need to be persuaded to include a noise/quietness rating -music/no music, quiet areas, anything that enables customers to decide before they arrive. Let the restaurants feel the pain instead of their customers.

oh dear i agree.. i do not understand why these bands have to scream. people come to have a conversation over a meal or a drink. I remember walking out of a pub because the singer was screaming. she was way out of the tune and there were only 10 people in the whole pub at that time.. its not a club so there is no need to turn the volume up.

Muriel Wyness says:
24 July 2016

It’s not only restaurants. It’s been said before but are the deaf suffering from discrimination when television programmes play music over dialogue? STV is the worst – it even plays music over news events.

Not just in restaurants – there are sone aisles in supermarkets, such as Asda and sadly the Co-op, that I can’t go near as the deafening rendition of smaltzy songs by shrill wailing voices make it too uncomfortable and I also find it difficult to concentrate. It’s counterproductive because I buy less.

At last the volume in cinemas is acknowledged as to loud if not painful. So where do we complain?; Is it the local health and safety?; as I am sure the cinemas management will do nothing unless forced to in some way or another.

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