10/13/2010 02:02 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mind the Noise

In some places, it's too noisy to hear. Doesn't matter whether you're trying to listen to someone else, or pay attention to your own thoughts ... the intense audio stimulation is overwhelming.

There are also places where noise is warranted, as celebration or outrage, or an expression of infinite possibility.

The challenge is matching sound to situation, and considering basic health and wellness issues when adjusting the volume as necessary.

Here are a few things to consider:

Health and Safety

When it's too loud, my ears hurt and eventually my head hurts. Yours too? Sure, there are safety standards, and I suppose that I could go through life with earplugs. But, while the standards are meaningful in industrial settings, and the earplugs are okay on airplanes, I wonder why sound levels in public spaces like train stations, airports and movie theaters seem to go off the charts so often.

I guess that experiencing pain with loud sounds indicates that you can still hear, but a destructive experience and/or ongoing audible insults can lead to profound hearing loss. Consider that headsets, iPods and the newest electronic gains provoke parental concern regarding deafness. It's an odd paradox that professional musicians routinely wear serious ear protection.

Then, to add insult to injury, if it's too loud to hear, people often resort to yelling responding to a too loud situation by making it even louder.

Relationships and Communication

Going out for dinner can be deafening. Next time you're out in a loud restaurant, notice the people with raised voices and observe whether their companions seem to be listening.

There seems to come a point, especially after a couple of drinks, when people cease speaking as a form of interpersonal communication and start shouting to hear their own voices.

Sometimes its fun to let go and make noise interacting with others, but it's respectful to do so when the noise doesn't dominate the environment. I have no issue with raucous laughter, so long as those present are smiling.

My issue is drawing attention to the self-righteous laughter that comes when people feel entitled to having their way no matter their impact on people's experience. Consider the rudeness of private cell phone conversations conducted in public, especially when the person using the phone is angry, abusive or disrespectful.

Common Sense and Basic Sanity

The more I think about these issues, the more clearly I hear the common theme: sound is power, and power can be used constructively, or not.

Most of us accept the basics of ethical behaviors -- you know, the "treat others the way you want them to treat you" approach to life. And, most of us love the diversity of life -- you know, the "there's a time for loudness, and a time for silence" approach. But somehow, in the matrix of actual life, we easily become distracted or overwhelmed or careless and fail to manage the complexity of moderating our own audible imprint by respecting people's needs.

We increasingly inhabit tighter and tighter spaces, yet we still maintain personal space and we don't physically touch others without their consent. But our personal spaces are permeable to sound, and all too often, personal sound becomes public noise. Sometimes it's enough to make me feel crazy. You too?

Mindfulness and Sound

It's impractical to assume that our living environments will be soundproofed. It's also frightening to consider wearing earplugs all the time. Just think of how many rich sounds we'd miss.

So, if we can't reduce the noise around us and don't want to block it out, what's left?

Part of the answer is simple: we can become more mindful of sound. This means paying attention to the sounds we create and the sounds that surround us right here, right now so we can take appropriate action. And here's the challenge: how to match awareness of sound with the situation and act accordingly.

  • If you're loud and you want to be loud, go someplace where others welcome your volume and join in your experience.

  • If you long for silence, go where quiet is the expectation and others will respect the norms.

  • If you're stuck in a place that is at odds with your desire (for example, if you're in a noisy restaurant when you want a tête-à-tête, or a library when you're longing to shout out loud), then it's time to move or moderate your expectations. Either option is respectful; and either is feasible.

In contrast, shushing a children's birthday party in the park makes no sense, and speaking loudly on your phone in a quiet waiting room is bad behavior.

If we're mindful, we'll know what we want and recognize what others' deserve and listen closely so we can tell the difference.