Noise: it’s a subjective thing.
One person’s harmony can be another’s chaos. While one person may work productively with music playing, another may be rendered idle by the distraction. There’s a lot of noise in life, and much of it is imposed upon us: the leafblower’s drone next door; the scream of steaming milk in a coffeehouse; the roar of traffic on the freeway; a commercial on the radio. We all have different levels of noise-tolerance, of what we consider to be “loud”, distracting, or outright annoying.
Some of us are so sensitive to specific sounds, they can trigger anxiety. Sensory overload is a legitimate state for many people. Added to our physical disposition toward sound perception is our personality. Our unique blends of introversion and extroversion can determine our approach to classifying sounds in the first place. Our relationship with noise is often overlooked, yet ultimately a driving factor in how we live our lives.
For a classic introvert, hanging out at a local bar may elicit an “It’s too loud in here” comment. The cacophony of audible stimuli – bottles clanking, people yelling, music thumping – can overwhelm someone who typically enjoys people in smaller, more intimate settings. It’s not just the sound that can overwhelm, but the fear of striking up conversation with strangers. Every voice in that bar represents a potential new interaction, thereby adding to the stress. The unpredictability and unstructured nature of a social setting can also be nerve-wracking. There may be a desire to talk one-on-one with someone in a quiet corner instead of whooping it up on the dancefloor. At the end of the night, they’re so exhausted from trying to hold it together for so long.
On the other end of the stereotypical extrovert spectrum, hanging out at a local bar is being in one’s element. The buzz of being with so many people in an intense, high-energy environment is invigorating. Being surrounded by people is like a security blanket. But put that same person in a quiet university library by themselves for an hour? It might be a challenge to sit there in silence, not talking with anyone, alone.
We are complex beings, and surely cannot be simplified as just “extrovert” or “introvert”. I’m no expert in human psychology, but I certainly enjoy reading about it. From what I’ve gathered, people are a blend of both introversion and extroversion, and it can depend on the situation. Some may fit the classic mold: introverts who enjoy quiet solitude; extroverts who are social butterflies. I read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, and thoroughly enjoyed it. One of the most important lessons I gleaned was that introversion and extroversion wasn’t necessarily just being social or not, but how we problem-solve in our daily lives. While an extrovert may want to call her best friend to talk about an issue, an introvert may prefer to write in her journal, or just think quietly, about it. Our tendencies to look toward people or toward ourselves during times of challenge says a lot about our nature.
Where does reaction to noise come in? How much does introversion or extroversion affect noise sensitivity? Why is it that one person can continue along undisturbed to the sound of humming, while another simply can’t focus on anything else? The sound of someone chewing food or chewing gum can be like nails on a chalkboard to some. Misophonia is a real condition in which some sounds are intensely stressful, if not painful, for the listener. I’m not sure if I fall into this category, but I know I have a thing with some noises, including humming.
Humming, yes. It began last year with a few of my students humming to themselves in class. It surely wasn’t a malicious thing; they were carrying a tune in their head, and using it to help them along in their classwork. However, that humming was the only thing I could focus on. There could be conversations from group work at table groups, and still I could pinpoint exactly where the humming was coming from. It wasn’t just humming, either. Pen tapping as if it were a drumstick? Clicking the end of a retractable pen repeatedly? Whistling? Just as distracting.
I banned all “distracting noises” from my classroom: humming, whistling, singing, drumming, tapping, clicking, or otherwise repetitive, loud clamor. It was about maintaining a well-focused learning environment free of unnecessary stimuli. In a group full of adolescent middle-schoolers, the last thing you need is any more energy. I was conscientious myself to speak in a gentle tone, not raising my voice over them, and tried to keep the overall noise in the classroom from overpowering their attention. I thought I was helping out the students, but upon closer reflection, I realized I was mostly just helping myself. I spoke softly not for their ears, but because it felt better to me; it helped set the tone for the noise-level of the classroom.
Talking to my husband Ron about my noise sensitivity helped put things into perspective.
“I think you might be overreacting a little bit to the humming,” he offered as an alternative. “Most people can tune out those kinds of noises in a large group setting like a classroom.”
“But I can’t,” I conceded. “I literally cannot do a math problem, think critically, or hear what someone else is really saying with that background distraction. It takes over the entire soundscape.”
The more we talked about it, the more I realized I was indeed on the “sensitive” side to noise. A dripping faucet? Leaky downspout after a rain? The tick-tock of a grandfather clock? Instant reaction. Man-made noises are the worst. I am used to hiding ticking clocks in drawers (though they’re less common now); I’ve put towels in the bottom of a dripping downspout to stop an incessant, echoing drip after a rain. I sleep with a fan on to drown out any nighttime noises (including my husband’s snoring). The sounds of traffic, loud engines, car alarms, building refrigeration units, the reverse beep of a delivery truck…they all add up to a lot of interruption.
Music, on the other hand, is almost always welcome. I love listening to many different kinds of music. I play the guitar and sing (I don’t sing all that well, but I sure love doing it). I believe in the healing power of music, its ability to bridge the gaps between us.
Most natural noises I embrace: a rushing river, leaves rustling in the wind, the fleeting song of a passing bird. Except some birds.
In 2002, I traveled to Bali with my friend for an awesome one month vacation. We spent a couple of nights jet-lagged in the bustling city of Kuta before escaping for the beautiful hillside village of Ubud. Pristine fields of fluorescent green rice carpeted the landscape like a technicolor dream. We couldn’t wait to explore, but had arrived late in the afternoon that day. I was coming down with an awful flu, feeling feverish and exhausted. I went to sleep once we settled into our homestay, but in a few hours the siren began.
“CAH!” the piercing noise reverberated into the hot, humid evening. About ten seconds of silence graced me.
“CAH!” it wailed again. My eyes wide open, I wondered if it was man-made or animal. After a few minutes of cawing at fairly consistent ten second intervals, I grabbed a pair of pants from my backpack, and wrapped them around my head to cover my ears.
Lying there another little while, tired and achy from the onset of that awful flu, I kept hearing the CAW! interrupt my sleep. Joelene was sleeping fine through it, so I didn’t bother to wake her. I got that claustrophobic feeling I get when I feel trapped. I felt trapped by this sound, and I couldn’t get it to go away. It felt like the presumed bird was laughing at me. I broke down crying in my bed, wishing it would stop, until I just couldn’t take it anymore.
Out of my bed I rose, quickly dressing and grabbing a few rupees. I walked for a few blocks until I reached a cafe with a friendly group of locals and tourists; they instantly saw the tears and distress in my eyes, especially apparent at two o’clock in the morning. I plopped down at a table, and asked them what was that incessant cawing?! Actually, I cawed like the bird, making them laugh, and finally myself, too.
“It’s probably a Nightjar,” one of the tourists chimed in. “They drove me crazy when I first got here too.” I enjoyed a beer and some food with them, tiring myself out in combination with my flu, until I returned to my room and finally conked out. Back home, it was the Northern Mockingbird singing on Summer evenings that kept me up.
Perhaps most interesting are the sounds of the environment I work in. I am a seventh grade Math and Science teacher at a middle school with roughly 600 students. To say there is “noise” is an understatement. Noise is the nature of the campus. It starts with the morning bell – “BEEEEEP!” into the crisp air – followed by the always animated morning announcements by the students. Then begins the day, full of activities and lessons to be taught. There are multitudes of sounds: talking students, electric pencil sharpeners, squeaky chairs with legs in need of tightening, blowing noses, the chirp of a tennis shoe catching the tile floor just so, the oohs and aahs of discovery during a Science lab, the BEEEEEP! of the bell, the screams of kids running around at lunch. Often, the sounds of students working together productively is music to my ears.
I’ve become quite accustomed to the many sounds of teaching, but one thing has remained constant throughout my eleven years of teaching: I need quiet breaks to recharge.
When lunchtime rolls around, I regret that I often don’t have the energy to go to the staff room and eat with my colleagues. I have been in a stimulating environment with plenty of noise for a few hours by that point, and want nothing more than a few minutes of silence. I tend to work quietly in my classroom alone, or walk the track outside if the weather’s nice. I’ve been told time and time again that I should go to the staff room for lunch, and some days I do (it helps to have monthly PTA lunches). I love the people in there, and always enjoy their company. My tendency to hide by myself during lunchtime has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with my need to recharge without giving my attention to anything. I need that time to replenish for fifth period after lunch, and for the rest of the day.
When I get home from work around four o’clock most days, I need about an hour to unwind quietly before doing any activities. Ron knows this about me; he respects that time, not taking it personally. Once I’ve had that time to unwind, I can be fully present with him the rest of the evening. It’s kind of like a power nap – restorative, regenerating. The downtime allows me to be more open to experience.
I wonder how much my tendency to escape to silent enclaves after times of socializing is based upon my introverted nature. I love people and interacting in large groups, but I love time alone. One of my favorite aspects of running or mountain biking is the silence of the trail. Looking out over a gorgeous mountain valley, hearing nothing but a light zephyr blow, is music to my ears. Add in a singing bird, the buzz of a dragonfly, or the chirp of a squirrel’s alarm call to sweeten the deal. But a blaring car alarm? Thumbs down.
The recharging power of Silence is something I’ve long looked to for solace and comfort. I remember being a kid and sitting quietly for long stretches on road trips. “You’re such a good traveler,” my parents would comment. I was content enjoying the downtime between our adventures. It was the same thing at home; I would come home from school or a sporting game, and enjoy playing quietly by myself for awhile. I would play with my Sylvanians (animal figurines), draw, or play outside in the yard. I also played a lot with my sisters and friends, but in retrospect, I realize I needed quiet time even then.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve embraced my need for quiet time. Whether just sitting still in a meditative state, doing the crossword puzzle in the garden, or riding my bike through the forest, I know I’m a better friend, wife, and teacher when I take that time for myself. I certainly don’t need quiet all the time, but when I do, it sounds like an alarm.
How much do you need Silence? What do you consider to be “noise”, and how do you manage those you deem “distractions”?
More importantly, what is music to your ears?