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Noisy Restaurants for Seniors: I Can’t Hear You

Published in ChicagoNow, June 24, 2019

Restaurant owners, if seniors who have the money to spend buying pricey meals are avoiding your establishment, it’s most likely because your place is too noisy for them to carry on a conversation with their dining companions. Not only have you sacrificed sound proofing for a design that is more industrial-looking. You also have background music playing so loudly that, even when you are not crowded, it is still hard for many of us to hear one another.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), 13 percent of Americans ages 12 and up have some degree of hearing loss. Of course, the statistics get worse as people age. 25 percent of people aged 65 to 74 and 50 percent who are 75 and older have disabling hearing loss.

I am one of that 25 percent. I wear hearing aids, and they are extremely helpful in situations that involve listening and being able to engage in normal conversations. But many noisy restaurants are anything but normal these days. Not only can’t I hear my dinner companions, but the noise level can actually be painful.

People my age often choose restaurants based on how noisy they are. Of course, the quality of the food and service matter, but more often our decision is based on whether we can hear our dining companions. This is far more important to seniors than a fancy presentation or exotic cuisine. So often, in choosing where to dine, someone will say the restaurant is too loud and we decide to go elsewhere.

I have wondered why restaurants have become so much noisier than they used to be. While some of this can be attributed to crowding in as many tables as possible to maximize profits, I think there are other factors at play. A restaurant in my neighborhood that recently went out of business had a reputation for excellent, pricey food but also such a noisy environment that folks my age stopped going there. Although the owners added acoustical tiles to the ceiling in an effort to remedy the noise factor, the stark, open concept, and bare design of the restaurant created an echo chamber in which it was difficult to converse with another couple. Add to that the loud background music and the ambience was more like attending a rock concert than dining with friends.

Perhaps the strategy of restaurant owners is to create an environment that discourages conversation and encourages faster turnover of customers. Lots of patrons seem to be busy texting rather than talking to one another. Maybe in our era of instant gratification and fast service, the art of actually socializing with the people who are physically there has been lost. Just make the food fancy and the service fast. Folks are here to eat, not to talk.

Asking for a quiet table or for turning down the music in noisy restaurants doesn’t always remedy the problem. Often, there is no quiet table and music is at a set level that cannot be changed. When making a reservation, I ask to be seated in the quietest part of the restaurant and away from the speakers, but there is no guarantee that this will happen. So, I cross that place off my list for the future.

While noisy restaurants are a minor annoyance compared with the myriad of huge issues plaguing our country these days, they may also be a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. According to an article in the Washington Post, restaurants fall under the category of public accommodations and thus must be accessible to persons with disabilities. Dr. Daniel Fink, a noise activist cited in the article, makes an interesting point about noisy restaurants. They definitely keep people with hearing impairments from socializing, which is one of the main reasons to go to a restaurant. If we banned smoking in restaurants because it bothered other patrons and exposed them to a health risk, why can’t we apply a similar standard to noise? The article states,

“Restaurant noise routinely climbs into the high 70-decibel range (the whir of a canister vacuum) and sometimes hits the mid-80s (the roar of a nearby diesel truck). At 70 decibels, only half of speech is intelligible. By 75 decibels, people can’t converse at all without shouting. And that’s for people with normal hearing.”

Restaurateurs, if your patrons often tell their fellow diners, “I can’t hear you,” you should be worried. We won’t be back and repeat business is the key to success in your business. The question I’m asking here is, do you hear us?


by Laurie Levy
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