Noise Annoys

By Kathi Mestayer

There I was, pumping gas into my car outside a convenience store, lost in thought. Then, the harsh yammering started. “Come inside for pizza and chicken wings! You can pick up candy and evil-carb junk food! Diet soda for a caffeine fix! Whaddya waiting for?”

The moot mute button

The moot mute button

It was hard to pinpoint the noise at first, since I have an asymmetrical hearing loss. But I quickly located the source… a speaker on the gas pump. It had a mutilated “MUTE” button on the right side, which looked like it had been pressed about a hundred thousand times. So I optimistically joined the ghosts of muters past, pressing hard, harder, again, one more time, trying to make it shut up. No dice.

My peace of mind had been hijacked! If I’d had the option of swiping my card again to make it stop, I would have!

I glanced around, stressed, helpless, and furious. I got into my car, opened the glove box hoping for an ice pick to drive into the heart of the speaker, and saw a tube of sunscreen. As I headed back to the pump, my brain worked out a plan:

“Squirt the sunscreen into the speaker!”

“But they can see you from inside the convenience store! You’ll get arrested!”

“Actually, that could be an interesting adventure. Imagine the headlines!

‘Woman arrested for trying to get silence a gas-station speaker.’”

I could blog about it!

So, I took that tube of sunscreen, aimed it into the middle of the speaker, and squeezed until it was empty. Haha! The speaker was still shouting at me, but I could picture the sunscreen working its way into the speaker, choking it into silence.

Everybody Hates Noise!

When I emailed Seth Horowitz, author of “The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind,” about my ice pick idea, he replied that it would have been a waste of a perfectly good ice pick.

I had to agree. In his book, Horowitz writes, “The targeted use [of noise], from louder ads to deafening store music, is an important and often misused sales and marketing tool.” It can backfire, creating strong negative impressions of the business, product, or space. In fact, the only time I ever visited that gas station again was to take the photo for this article. And I didn’t buy any gas.

And sudden, loud, unexpected noises are likely to cause a hardwired stress response in our brains. In a recent essay in The New York Times, “The Cost of Paying Attention,” Matthew B. Crawford asks himself, from the noisy chaos of an airport, “Why am I so angry?”

Volume Optional

Noise doesn’t have to be loud to be disconcerting. Last year, in my art class, two fellow students were chatting quietly at the next easel. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but they were just close enough, and just audible enough, that my brain would not quit trying. My brain, which often gives me feedback in this kind of situation, said, “You sure you want me to give up? It might be something interesting! I know I’m going to get it in the next couple of words!”

I was just starting to feel the frustration of trying, and failing, to understand the conversation, as I turned off my hearing aids. My own personal “mute” button.

There’s More of Us Out There

Lots of smart people are recognizing public-space noise, and attention piracy, as a real problem. In “Ambient Commons: Attention in the Age of Embodied Information,” author Malcolm McCullough writes, “Silence remains necessary for individual and especially cultural sanity. This is why modern cities enforce noise ordinances. You have a right to free speech, but not to amplify it from the rooftops all night, as if the air were an inconsequential void.”

And in his book, “The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want,” author Garret Keizer chimes in: “In the end, after all the physicists, musicologists, and social theorists have had their say, there are only two kinds of human noise in the world: the noise that says, ‘The world is mine,’ and the noise that says, ‘It’s my world too.’ We need to quiet the first and make more of the second.”

And those who don’t take note of those wise words could end up with sunscreen in their speakers.

This is adapted from Hearing Health magazine staff writer Kathi Mestayer’s work on

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