Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Unpopular Opinion: Where Have All the Quiet Spaces Gone?

What I hear... and sometimes how I feel.
I have been wanting to write about this topic for a long time, but struggled with how to do it.  So I'm going to forgo the pretty words and just say it: when did people have to start apologizing for wanting other people to be quiet?

Think about it: the quiet person hurts no one.  He or she may as well not even exist because no one else is aware of his or her presence.  The loud person hurts numerous people by imposing him/herself on other people's space, crowding out their thoughts with insistent noise or chatter.

Yet the quiet person is the one who must say time and again: "I'm sorry, could you please keep it down?"  I'm so sorry to have to impose myself on you.  The loud person never pauses to consider whether his or her noise could be hurting someone else.  The loud person just turns up that car stereo, or cranks up that leaf blower, or talks even louder into that cell phone, or plays the television loud enough to be heard across the street.  He or she never says "I'm sorry" to anyone.

And why should this person have to be sorry?  The right to make "your" noise is right up there with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Anyone who attempts to restrict your noise, despite whatever harm it is causing, is nothing more than a joyless harpie who wants to control everyone's life.

And certainly the loud person sees and hears nothing that would persuade him or her otherwise.  Quiet hours and curfews are laxly enforced and routinely ignored.  Public libraries, once sanctuaries for people who wanted to read and work in peace, have turned into community centers, where kids run and shriek with little supervision.  Construction can start as early as 7 a.m. in some locations and last until dark.  Noise has crept into places where there used to be none, such as muzak in cafes, department stores, and outdoor courtyards.        

In this world, the quiet person is the aberration, the one who needs to shut up.  Shut up, bitch.  Shut your fucking mouth.  No one wants to hear what you have to say.  Yes, the loud person only cares about quiet when it means silencing the person who inconveniences him.  While a polite request can sometimes lead to genuine efforts to be quieter, more often the request is met with a snide response, a sharp sigh, an eye roll.

How dare you not stay silent?  

How dare you not sit and stare at the floor with your mouth pressed in a tight line, looking angry and uncomfortable like all the others?  How dare you speak to me.          

Was it always like this?  Who can say?  I seem to recall a time when I could watch football on television without aural bombs exploding during the opening credits.  I remember when cell phone users were an aberration in public places, when irritated restaurant patrons would talk loudly into their hands in imitation in order to shame the cell phone talker into lowering the volume.  Now everyone has a cell phone, and it is the ones who want quiet who have to apologize.

It would be one thing if the problem could be traced to population growth and greater urban density.  I'm sure they both play their part, but I think there's more to it than that.  In Japan, the great urban density has supposedly made people quieter because they respect other people's space more.  And I don't think "progress" explains it, either: progress has led to machines becoming quieter (like the computer) as well as louder.

No, it's an attitude that was acquired I don't know when.  Not even an attitude of projecting dominance, although I'm sure for some people, that's a bonus.  No, it is the attitude of complete confidence that what they are doing is right, and that they never need to consider someone else's needs before they act.

And why should they?  It's just noise, you oversensitive bitch.  It's not earthquakes or cancer or famine or something real, you know?

Maybe I care so much because I'm a writer, and I know how much concentration and effort it can take to dip deeply into the well, even to write posts like this one.  Because I know how sweet a quiet hour can be, how replenishing.

Maybe because I value privacy, and I don't want to know about your boyfriend or your boss, what type of music you like or the color of your son's poop.

Maybe because I know the toll that constant ambient noise takes on our health.  Permanent hearing loss, sleep disturbance, hypertension, increased stress and aggression -- and that's just for starters.  Noise pollution is like global warming: a real threat that too many people think if they just ignore, it will go away.  Instead it just gets worse.

Believe me, as a certified quiet person, I'm not complaining because it's something that I get off on.  Complaining stresses me out.  No, what I really want is to not think about the loud person at all.  I would much prefer to focus on I was doing before the loud person showed up.  The only reason I have complained is because the fan, the earplugs, the noise-canceling headphones, the focusing and ignoring were not enough to block the loud person out.  Only when all other methods have failed do I force myself to confront the loud person.  God forbid I ever try to request in advance that this person not be loud because then I'm just crazy.

And yes, I know that the world isn't just quiet people versus loud people, and that at any given moment, a quiet person can become a loud person.  The point of this post was to consider why there exists this double standard where the one who wants quiet must feel ashamed, while too often the one who wants to make noise never does.   

I don't have any ready answers.  All I know is that little by little, the quiet spaces are slowly ebbing away.  We have the power to bring them back or create new ones, but it requires two things.  First, that people recognize there is a problem, and second, that they learn that other people's right to quiet is just as important as their right to make noise.  It is my goal for balance to be restored, and that is one thing I won't be quiet about.

The photo above comes from Stock Xchng and was taken by duchesssa.  Use of this image does not mean duchesssa endorses the views of this or any other post on this blog. 


  1. YES. This is the best thing I've read all week. I'm a quiet person who comes from a family of introverts. We all get very frustrated at loud people. We try to respect others and keep our noise down. Why can't they? I live in a college dorm, and though the noise level is usually pretty low, I do have a neighbor who insists on loudly playing his guitar or laptop music for hours on end. He feels the need to make it "public" by always playing in the common room next door instead of playing in his room or in one of the closed-in study rooms on our hall. Rude! /end rant. Anyways, just wanted to say that you are not alone in the way you feel.

  2. Thanks, backtothebookshelf!

    Ugh, I remember those days in a college dorm. My first year was easily the worst. Quiet hours were completely ignored, and our system for complaints was a joke. My next door neighbors held group gatherings until 2 or 3 am every night. Other people's sleep was not a priority to them.

    So I definitely feel for you. Even though I was made to feel like crap for complaining, I never regretted it. I hope you feel comfortable asking for quiet -- because there's absolutely no reason your neighbor's need to be loud takes priority over your needs. Hopefully he (and others) occasionally know how to act courteous.