The world is too noisy. Anyone who’s been following Mumbli over the last couple of years will have heard this mantra repeated over and over again. Not only does it form the backbone of why I created Mumbli, but it’s also a personal ‘slogan’ that I’ve come to live my life by.
And then, in 2020, a pandemic hit.
I know that this has been a hard time for everybody, and the last thing I want is to come across as insensitive. But the truth is… I’ve loved it.
Let me explain.
In 2011, over the course of six months, I experienced an 80% reduction of my hearing. I was aged just 26.
Since then, I’ve been wearing the best technology on the market to enhance my reduced hearing ability. It allows me to communicate, stream music and even (ab)use the embedded noise cancelling feature. The core function of these devices is to amplify sound frequencies with the purpose of being able to hear speech.
The side effect in a social place? Imagine a noisy restaurant where you’re struggling to hear your friend talking because of the background ‘buzz’. Then multiply the effect on your brain by 5 or 10 times. With all the sounds around you being equally amplified, it’s like trying to hear someone over the phone at a rock concert!
Now, I know for a fact that the noisy world is dangerous for everyone’s physical and mental wellbeing. But, at the end of the day, it’s also a personal battle for me.
Following a conversation with more than one person at once is a particular challenge. Ordering food or drinks at a bar or restaurant is another. People often get annoyed that I can’t hear. Or sometimes, they shout and speak to me as if I’m stupid. It’s actually funny seeing people get upset when I can’t understand them, since most people mumble when they speak.
These are everyday battles that I’ve become familiar with… until suddenly, it all stopped.
When everything went quiet
Within the space of just a day, my whole world changed, just like it did for billions of others all around the globe.
In normal times, a busy junction has more than 150 sounds overlaid on top of each other, from planes to cars, footsteps and voices. The sound from one ambulance (120 dB) can damage your hearing forever.
But during the pandemic, many of these man-made sounds stopped, leaving room for a level of ‘underground’, natural sounds to come to the surface.
I heard birds sing more clearly than I have for years. I even remember walking along Hackney canal and hearing insects and frogs. Who usually hears insects in the middle of London?!
So, at the risk of sounding insensitive, when friends and colleagues called me to ask how I was, it was natural to answer with ‘I’m loving it! Never been better!’
The one thing that I was totally unprepared for was their reaction.
Becoming unaccustomed to noise
Even though my friends and colleagues weren’t experiencing the same battles with their hearing, they were all loving the silence just as much as I was!
Perhaps the ‘bounce phenomenon’ goes some way to explain this. In (very!) simple terms, it’s about how your perception of noise can be very different from the actual decibel reading.
Have you ever gone to a noisy bar and promptly forgotten about how loud it is after around 90 seconds? Or, perhaps you’ve played really loud music through your headphones, only to have to turn it up five minutes later? This is all to do with how quickly your threshold for sound changes as your brain adjusts to the noise.
It makes sense then, that in the case of the pandemic, no one was really aware of how loud the world around them was. Until those noises stopped!
People have been talking about wanting the world to go back to normal. But returning to normality also means going back to traffic, planes, noisy bars and busy junctions. Surely we can’t want that?
And of course, as we’ve emerged from lockdown, a whole new set of challenges has arrived. The use of masks makes it even harder for many people to communicate in social spaces. And, as we’ve all become accustomed to the quiet, we’ve become even more sensitive to the noisy world around us.
So, where do we go from here?
Well, I think we have to pay attention to those countries that have made decisions to design their environments (both indoors and outdoors) for sound. Helsinki has been declared as one of the quietest cities in the world, thanks to the fact that it builds with sound-absorbing materials. And there are many other sound solutions around the globe.
Plus, let’s not forget those cultures that design their spaces around proximity and intimacy, like the calming and soothing environment of Japanese restaurants and bars. Luckily, this is a concept that has given rise to a number of listening bars around the UK.
For me personally, though, it’s all about a promise. Before the pandemic, I still went to noisy places – not because I liked them, but because I didn’t always believe there was another option. But now, thanks to my pandemic experience, I’m not going to subject myself to noisy environments anymore (unless when same favourite ’30s themed bars open up again!).
It’s also given our work at Mumbli a new sense of urgency, as we look to find spaces that we can certify for sound under our rating system, providing Londoners with social settings that don’t compromise their hearing wellness or disappoint when conversation is no longer possible.
What changes will you be making?