The Noise Edition

On hospitality, design, and acoustics 

Colin here. One of the most underrated things about a space, be it a hotel, restaurant, airline lounge, or anywhere else, is how it treats sound. When sound is dealt with effectively, you don’t notice it: you can focus on your conversation or on your own thoughts, a rare luxury in the world. But when a room is cacophonous, just about everything in the experience is diminished. And, due to the noise, more people talk loudly, which in turn raises noise levels even further—this is called the Lombard Effect

Part of this is aesthetics. As a lot of design trends in recent years moved towards the open and minimal—and away from carpets, drapes, and soft surfaces—bounding sound became a bigger issue. A recent piece in the Atlantic spells it out:

According to Architectural Digest, mid-century modern and minimalism are both here to stay. That means sparse, modern decor; high, exposed ceilings; and almost no soft goods, such as curtains, upholstery, or carpets. These design features are a feast for the eyes, but a nightmare for the ears. No soft goods and tall ceilings mean nothing is absorbing sound energy, and a room full of hard surfaces serves as a big sonic mirror, reflecting sound around the room.

The result is a loud space that renders speech unintelligible. Now that it’s so commonplace, the din of a loud restaurant is unavoidable. That’s bad for your health—and worse for the staff who works there. But it also degrades the thing that eating out is meant to culture: a shared social experience that rejuvenates, rather than harms, its participants.

There’s also a bit of psychology behind the noise in public spaces. Turns out, certain noises can have an intended business effect. According to Fohlio, loud noise can be important

Why is this? signals that the establishment is popular, and that it produces a sense of conviviality and hospitality. Although this is up for debate, there’s evidence that a loud environment is actually profitable. Hard Rock Cafe, for example, has the practice down to a science. Just like bright lights, loud, fast music cause patrons to talk less, consume more, and leave sooner.

And quiet might have negative connotations

On the other side of the spectrum, we can see why restaurant owners are partly justified for gravitating toward noise. A too-quiet restaurant gives off the sense that nobody likes to go there. If guests do come in, too little noise can actually be distracting, in that they can become hyper-aware of the sound of other diners’ silverware and conversation.

Why is this interesting? 

We’re at an inflection point with our relationship to noise in public places. During COVID, we’ve been mostly removed from the hustle and bustle of the world, mixing in limited groups, likely eating outside where the ventilation is plentiful, and not indoors. As we collectively re-emerge into public spaces, we may find our mental calluses have diminished and full-on sensory overload could be on the horizon. Even before the pandemic, complaints about noise were some of the most frequent topics of ire on online review sites. 

So what’s the perfect balance of noise in a public place? This is quite subjective and context-specific, but a gentle murmur of ambient sound to fill in the background while allowing clarity and focus in a conversation is a beautiful thing. In the same way a technician tunes a sound system for a live performance, the best hospitality companies need to do the same, drawing on acoustic panels, sound dampening, and other tricks to dial in the exact, comfortable context to make it super appealing to return to public spaces, and not have it be a jarring experience. (CJN)

TIL of the Day:

There’s a beautiful magnolia tree behind my house that’s just starting to bloom. In reading up on it I learned that magnolias are so old that they existed before bees and therefore evolved to be pollinated by beetles (who are apparently known as “dumb pollinators”). The relevant facts:

Magnolias evolved a different strategy for pollination.  Their flowers are quite showy, produce nectar and have fragrance, all in the effort to attract insects.  They invest more energy in these insect-attracting traits than pollen production, generating much less pollen per flower than their wind-pollinated cousins. 

The interesting twist with magnolias is that their genus (Magnolia) is quite ancient, evolving very early in the plant family tree, earlier than our native flowering trees.  They are considered to be among the oldest of the flowering plants.  At the time of their evolution, many common pollinators we think of today, such as bees, butterflies and moths had not evolved yet.  As a result, magnolias developed flowers for pollination by beetles and flies, which were the primary insect pollinators 100 million years ago. (NRB) 

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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