Indoor Voices, Please!

Dear Helena,

What is up with people talking really, really, really loudly or laughing really loudly in restaurants? People need to realize they’re in a public space, and it’s superobnoxious to be so noisy. Shouldn’t you be considerate of others and keep it down? —Shush

Dear Shush,

When other diners are shouting at the top of their lungs, it’s natural to blame the din on them. But it’s not all their fault. The restaurant’s interior may be amplifying sound. Michael Binns, president of Acoustical Solutions, which sells soundproofing products, says that hard surfaces “like sheetrock, gypsum board, [and] ceramic or hardwood floors” reflect back sound. This makes people shout even more loudly to be heard, causing a vicious circle.

In contrast, soft surfaces are more absorbent, which is one reason classy restaurants are quieter. “A white-tablecloth restaurant is in and of itself more absorbent,” says Greg Bradshaw of AvroKO, a New York design firm that counts restaurants such as Public among its projects.

But fashionable, midlevel hot spots don’t have much upholstery. Sleek, spare interiors are in vogue. Bradshaw comments: “There’s an awareness of less is more. People are not trying to design thousand-dollar-per-square-foot spaces like in Vegas.”

Restaurateurs can take measures to bring the noise level down without ruining their minimalist look. For instance, they can place a sheet of cork underneath each table to absorb sound. But a librarylike hush isn’t always desirable. If the place is a trendy downtown restaurant, says Bradshaw, “They might want more life and energy in the space.” Even if the restaurant is a temple of haute cuisine, some noise is desirable. “Overall you do want a bit of stuff bouncing around because it creates a pocket of sound you can have a conversation within and not be afraid the person next to you is listening.”

Nonetheless, if you’re straining to hear your companion, nothing is more annoying than the sound of other people chattering away. “The more similar sounds are, the harder it is to filter out the ones you are interested in,” says Barbara G. Shinn-Cunningham, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Boston University. On top of that, she explains, “The brain is both hard-wired and trained to focus on speech.” In other words, you can’t tune out conversation the way you might ignore, say, the roar of an air conditioner.

Although restaurant acoustics are challenging, individuals are to blame too. Some people are a lot noisier than others. Sometimes it’s because they’re drunk. Often it’s because they’re in a large group, and they’re shouting to be heard at the other end of the table or over the voices of their companions.

Studies indicate that some sounds can seem louder than others, even though they may have “the same amount of sound energy,” says Shinn-Cunningham. Other people’s conversations might seem louder than they really are, simply because you find those talkers annoying. You may be unconsciously judging them for being sloshed, gossipy, or contentious. Or if they’re all guffawing with laughter, perhaps on a deep level, you’re jealous of their bonhomie.

You can hardly eat while wearing Bose noise-canceling headphones, nor can you march over and demand that loud talkers use their indoor voices. Try this mental trick instead. If you suspect any of the above might be the case, just imagine the sound comes from some less irritating source. Imagine it’s a debate at the UN (or if the diners are particularly boisterous, it could be a debate in the British parliament). Or you could pretend you’re listening to a horde of monkeys or a flock of parrots.

It also helps if you choose your table with care. Even if the restaurant is noisy, sitting near curtains or in an upholstered booth may help you find quiet. And if you must choose between sitting next to loud people or sitting near the kitchen or underneath a speaker, go for one of the latter two options. Because the sound of other people talking is most likely to disrupt your conversation, you’re better off sitting next to a mariachi band than a table of drunken stockbrokers.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.