Douglas Todd: Everybody suffers from noisy restaurants and bars

Opinion: Fortunately, many ways are emerging for customers and staff to fight back against deafening eating and drinking establishments.

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It’s maddening when an evening out is mostly wrecked when you inadvertently choose a restaurant or pub that plays blaring music.


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It’s not only patrons who suffer. So do many restaurant and bar staff, who can experience gradual hearing damage after working long hours in high-decibel settings.

Fortunately, there are ways emerging for customers and staff to fight back.

Quietly, but effectively.

Excessive noise shouldn’t get the last word in the hospitality and retail industry, particularly as the pandemic becomes more manageable and more Christmas events beckon.

Maybe it’s the extra quiet we’ve had from being in our homes because of the coronavirus, but few subjects these days seem to heat up social media like a discussion of blaring music in restaurants, pubs and bars, not to mention shopping outlets.

Almost every North American now has tales of outings wrecked by recorded music cranked to the rafters, ostensibly in an effort to create a “buzz” for customers, who presumably would succumb to ennui without it.


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The assumption of many hospitality sector entrepreneurs in the U.S. and Canada seems to be that actual conversation is a dying art, so it’s necessary to create “energy” by forcing people to shout.

John Martyn, President of Right to Quiet Society for Soundscape Awareness and Protection, inside a (quiet) restaurant in Abbotsford.
John Martyn, President of Right to Quiet Society for Soundscape Awareness and Protection, inside a (quiet) restaurant in Abbotsford. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

Unfortunately, the cynics are also not wrong when they report many industrial psychological studies have shown that pounding music encourages people to eat and, especially drink, more .

The loudness problem is not nearly as prevalent in Europe, where venues are generally quieter and owners seem to believe patrons, including younger generations, value talking to each other in an intimate way.

While some customers are coming up with new ways of making their protests heard, some young restaurant, pub and bar staff are also making it clear they’ve listened to enough.


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WorkSafeBC, a provincial agency, received 3,343 disability claims for noise-induced hearing loss in a recent five-year period, some of which came from the service sector (most came from even more noisy industrial jobs). Any workplaces that function over 85 decibels over a typical shift are formally considered a health risk in B.C.

“Noise is a serious and widespread problem in many workplaces, and this includes the service industry,” says Dan Strand of WorkSafeBC, which has made efforts to educate service-sector employees about protecting their hearing and reporting noisy pubs, bars and restaurants.

While employees and others can make anonymous complaints about clamouring workplaces to 1-888-621-7233, WorkSafeBC has also produced videos encouraging host and kitchen staff to wear earplugs. Such devices not only protect hearing, they make it easier to decipher what people are saying in a loud setting.

We apologize, but this video has failed to load.


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Earplugs, however, are not exactly an enticing option for people who just want so spend money, often a great deal of it, for a good time and engaging conversation.

What recourse do the public have when faced with a noisy establishment?

A variety of things happen when servers or managers are politely asked if they could turn down the volume. Some do. Some do for one seating section. Some do, but only for 15 minutes. Some pretend to. Some say no, with it soon coming clear it’s the staff who like the heavy beat. Others say thunderous sound is crucial to the establishment’s “ambience.”

Another option for a would-be client is to immediately leave the place and not return. It seems many potential Metro Vancouver diners often do precisely that – with the most helpful ones informing the establishment why.


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Restaurant critics would also be doing us a big favour by routinely including noise levels in their ratings.

I recently conducted a non-scientific poll on Twitter, which asked, “Would you like restaurant critics to include noise levels in their reviews?” Nineteen out of 20 voted “Yes.”


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John Martyn, president of  Right to Quiet (Society for Soundscape Awareness and Protection), explains how technology is helping the anti-noise cause.

A new software app is proving effective in allowing people to easily test the decibel levels of any entertainment or hospitality venue. A form of crowdsourcing, the Soundprint app allows anyone to share online the noise levels of any particular place.

“We know restaurant and pub owners are not turning up the music to make less money. They’re doing it because they believe it’s going to make them greater profits,” said Martyn, who heads the Canadian organization from his base in Abbotsford.

Soundprint, Martyn said, has already taking off in the U.S., where greater use has created a “better statistical profile” of each establishment. “It doesn’t take many app users to get the snowball rolling.”

Just as smoking, perfumes and mandatory high heels for service employees have been banned in many North American workplaces, Martyn strives for the day when debilitating noise is no longer tolerated in eating and drinking establishments.

That, he says, would give both customers and workers the chance to go about their business in a more dignified way.




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