Arms Race

We’ve been hearing a lot about the non-medical fallout of the COVID-19 epidemic: the increasing polarization of politics*, burnout among medical professionals, children falling behind on their schooling, and so on. There’s one impact, however, that I haven’t seen noted in the press yet.

* Though, to be fair to the virus, that one was already well in progress before 2020; COVID-19 is just an excuse.

Noise pollution.

Those of us in mask-wearing parts of the country are being subjected to more and more noise. And we should have seen (heard?) it coming.

Masks do muffle speech and nobody wants to try to carry on a conversation with pen and paper. Heck, only a rare few of us carry notebooks these days, and it seems like even fewer still remember how to write*. I suppose in some situations, we could use our phones. But do you want to give a stranger your phone number just so you can text your dinner order? Think that hot guy at the other end of the bar can be trusted not to abuse your number if you don’t fall for his pickup line–or even if you do? And the whole point of meeting your sweetie in person is so you can whisper sweet nothings in their ear; you might as well skip the dinner date if you’re just going to chat at each other across the table.

* I’ll skip the rant about schools no longer teaching cursive, much less penmanship in general.

So instead, we’re all speaking louder.

Problem solved, right? Not so much.

Business owners are wedded to the notion that background music improves sales.

There’s a reason it’s called “background” music: you’re not supposed to listen to it; it’s just supposed to affect you at a subliminal level. It makes you shop faster, not think about whether you can afford something, but just buy it and move on. Or eat faster, so the restaurant can turn the table over that much sooner.

But if you can’t hear it at all, it can’t have its supposed effect. And so, with everyone tightening their diaphragms and projecting their voices, stores and restaurants are compensating by turning up the music.

Which, of course, makes it harder for the customers to be understood, so they speak even louder. Vicious circle. Arms race–make that “ears race”.

Even here in the masks-mandatory Bay Area, we’re not quite up to volume levels traditionally associated with rock concerts and airports. Not yet, anyway. But hearing can be damaged by sustained noise at lower volumes.

Speaking louder gets to be a habit. I’m hearing that in my own life. At home and mask-free, I’m still talking louder than I used to, unless I make a conscious effort not to.

So I don’t think sound levels are going to drop quickly even once COVID-19 is beaten*. You might want to pick up a pair of noise-canceling headphones for daily wear over the next couple of years.

* Make that “beaten”. It’s not going to go away completely. The best we can hope for is to reduce it to the level of the flu. Get your annual flu shot (and, by the way, it’s that time of year–go get yours today!) and a COVID shot; we may even wind up combining them into a single dose.

And it just might be that now is the right time to be buying stock in companies that make hearing aids.

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