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"It's all about me!"


The author at her seventh birthday party, 1966

May 25, 2014 | In April 2013, I hosted the Right to Quiet Society booth at Green Festival New York City
at the Javits Center, and spoke with more than a hundred people over the course of two days. We offered articles, bookmarks, and bumper stickers, literature from several noise-related organizations, academic papers, flyers from a hearing center, and a variety of brochures. If visitors asked questions I answered them, but mostly people wanted to talk - and I let them direct the conversation. I listened to a lot of complaining.
And I learned more during those two days that I could have imagined.

I noticed that people have certain assumptions - about noise, and about people and groups who advocate
for noise reduction. Visitors would bring up a topic and say, "Don't you hate ____? " and fill in the blank a dozen different ways. Loud headsets on public transportation. Sirens. Motorcycles. I nodded and sympathized, but often thought, "That noise? Not me - I couldn't care less about that."

It still surprises me to find myself committed to a noise-related issue. My first thought is that I "don't fit the profile," but even that rings false now - what IS the profile? Is there a profile? Are there people who are "sensitive to noise" or do all of us have a range of responses to different kinds of noise in different contexts? Clearly, I can't stand horn-based vehicle lock alerts - that much is obvious. In a residential setting, I don't like slamming doors, loud music too early or too late, or construction projects that begin before 9:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m. I prefer not to have to listen to a neighbor's wind chimes in an urban residential setting, but if I'm visiting someone who has wind chimes in suburbia, I enjoy the sound.

Many of the complaints at the Green Festival were about noise at multi-dwelling residences - a topic for another day, but suffice it to say that I sympathized completely. But most non-residential environmental noise sources people mentioned - loud headsets, motorcycles, sirens - were sounds I tend to tune out. I grew up a few blocks from a highway, and I've always loved the sound of motorcycles. For a while, I lived next to a train line, and loved the sound of passing trains, day or night. I love the sound of fog horns, and I like the sound of leaf blowers. I can tune out the sound of a steady car alarm, and have been able to fall asleep or sleep through the sound of a car alarm.

Where do I stand motorcycle noise, car alarms, leaf blowers, and other noise sources that I rarely notice?
I support reduction or elimination of most of those noise sources because I know how much those sounds affect others. A motorcycle will not bother me whether or not the exhaust is modified, but I support activists who are against "loud pipes" because I think they make a strong, evidence-based argument. Like them, I don't agree that "loud pipes save lives" - today more than ever, when so many pedestrians are distracted enough to pose a danger to themselves. There is no substitute for safe riding and safe driving.

I also agree that there is no logical basis for continuing the use of audible car alarms. In addition to vehicle immobilizers and GPS tracking systems, today nearly every automaker has some kind of innovative technology that serves the same purpose as an audible car alarm, but silently. There are strong arguments for lowering the volume of sirens and leaf blowers, and even if I don't feel passionately about some sound sources, I will always listen and consider - and I'll always support the idea of "buying quiet," manufacturing the quietest products possible, and not altering products to make them louder. I will support any argument that makes sense to me even if the noise source doesn't bother me - because it isn't "all about me."

Nearly two decades ago, Peter Lercher discussed how important context is in any discussion of environmental noise. Citing earlier work by RF Soames Job and Aubrey McKennell, Lercher offers McKennell's example of different responses to the sound of a Concorde plane flying overhead, where the example of "patriotism" is given in one instance of someone not responding with annoyance. This corresponds exactly with my own experience of hearing a motorcycle passing by, especially on a highway, and especially at night - the sound conjures up romantic ideals of "freedom" and "the open road" however fleeting y, enabling me to enjoy it or dismiss it.

Lercher's 1996 article analyzes shortcomings of noise research that was done decades earlier. McKennell wrote about the contexts of noise disturbance fifty years ago. We can and we should lament the glacial and fragmented pace of translational application of noise research to action to improved quality of life. But then we can return to whatever "fragment" we are working on - and for me, that is horn-based lock alerts. But we need to keep the bigger picture in mind, and find ways to reduce the fragmentation and the slow pace of applying research findings in the real world. We can start by recognizing the fact that it is not "all about" any one person or any one thing.

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