[NPC Clearinghouse]

"Good neighbors keep their noise to themselves."

Keep It Down
(and Rediscover Silence)

This piece is an excerpted chapter from P.M. Forni's book Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct. You can find more information about the book by visiting the author's website.

My right to swing my fist ends at your nose. My right to make noise ought to end at your ear.
-Les Blomberg
Many people believe that constant noise is normal.
-Judith Martin

"Kendall, that's not your inside voice," the father of the sprightly four-year-old quietly but firmly observed. "That's your outside one." Little Kendall, whom Mother Nature had provided with powerful vocal cords, immediately switched to the appropriate, lower register. Sensitive as I am to the scourge of unnecessary and unwanted noise, I felt like breaking into applause and bestowing exuberant praise upon both parent and child. Yes, I told myself, the virtue of moderation in noise production was being kept alive for the new generations. There was hope after all.

Noise is among the most pervasive and frustrating sources of everyday annoyance -- and sometimes a veritable pain. Careful management of noise is a must for those who want to be civil. Why is noise pollution so prevalent? Because many don't seem to see (or rather hear) the problem at all and many of those who do don't care enough to correct it. The practicing piano virtuoso transported by his own music may forget that his neighbors' bedroom is only a few inches from his thundering instrument. A late-night reveler may be aware of but dismiss as inconsequential the discomfort his loud merrymaking inflicts upon others. Irrespective of the different mind-sets, in either case somebody’s peace is unnecessarily disturbed. In either case, sensitivity (or if you prefer, civility) should have prevailed.

Don't pummel those who live with and around you with loud sounds coming from your television, computer, and CD player. Make sure you don't schedule noisy lawn mowing before nine o'clock in the morning. Abstain from frivolous honking. Your car horn is neither for saying hello nor for venting your frustration. Use it only to increase road safety. Headphones are a must when listening to music on public transportation.

Respect silence in houses of worship. The chatter of rude adults and the whining and screaming of tired or unruly small children can spoil a religious service. We seem to be forgetting today that libraries call for a quiet demeanor. In a library, converse only in the designated group-study areas. In a restaurant, keep your voice down, just like at the office. In a theater, don't speak at all. You may have noticed that some food critics rate restaurants not only in the categories of food and atmosphere but also in that of quiet. A noise meter is part of today's sophisticated restaurant reviewer's professional kit.

Before entering houses of worship, libraries, restaurants, and theaters, turn off your cellular telephone. For incoming emergency calls, switch your pagers to vibrating mode. In general, your telephone should be turned off whenever its ringing would distract or annoy others. This includes all of your meetings, whether work-related or social.

If you go to the movies (or to live plays, the opera, or concerts), sooner or later you will have to deal with the chattering of fellow audience members. Can you live with it? If not, try first an inquisitive glance and then a polite whisper: "Excuse me, but your talking makes it difficult for me to enjoy the show." Should this fail, don't repeat your plea. You want to prevent the incident from escalating. And you want to be considerate of those who are not sitting close enough to be bothered by the chatter but would certainly notice an altercation. At this point, change seats, if you can, or bring the matter to the attention of an usher or a supervisor.

The strategy remains the same when dealing with noise polluters of all stripes. Decide how much you are willing to tolerate. Should you choose to intervene, take a big breath and remind yourself to remain clearheaded. Explain to the offender what the noise does to you and make your polite but firm request. Just as you don't want to be driven by your own anger, work hard at keeping the anger of others down. To do this, avoid accusatory tones and impress upon the other person that you are confident that the two of you can ultimately reach an agreement. If it feels right, propose or accept a reasonable compromise. The alternative is to seek a resolution with the help of a mediator.

In an age when background noise are virtually constant, we are slowly becoming inured to noise.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

At the same time, many of us are ready to reacquaint ourselves with silence. We are beginning to realize that silence is not a void waiting to be filled, just as an immaculate church wall is not there to be defaced with spray paint. Silence is not necessarily the sign of a failure to communicate. Instead, it can be the refreshing result of a choice. We often surround ourselves with chatter and sundry sounds because we don't want to be alone with our thoughts. While noise takes us away from ourselves, through silence we build bridges to our own souls. Ultimately, the challenge to all of us on the threshold of the new century (which threatens to be a noisy one) is to treat silence as an endangered precious resource. There is an urgent need for advocates of silence. There is an urgent need for gatherers of tranquility.


While celebrating International Noise Awareness Day in 2001, Les Blomberg observed that "our soundscape is like our landscape in that noise is to that soundscape as litter is to the landscape, and... we've really cluttered up our soundscape and it's time to start cleaning it up." Les Blomberg is executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, and organization of ecologists of quiet whose motto is "Good neighbors keep their noise to themselves." The Clearinghouse's mission is “to create more civil cities and more natural rural and wilderness areas by reducing noise pollution at the source." We know that hearing loss, stress, and high blood pressure are among the consequences of noise pollution. Experimental studies have also shown that noise has negative effects on children's learning and on performance in the workplace. "Friends of quiet," wrote Mr. Blomberg, "need to be part Rachel Carson and part Miss Manners. We need to demand that common property be protected, that our air remains clean, free of noise, smog, acid rain, etc., and that others be treated respectfully and in a manner we would wish for ourselves."

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