27 September 2023

Quiet, please! Why office noise bothers some people more than others

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Zaria Gorvett* says no-one likes an office whistler or pen clicker, but for some people, these noises aren’t just a nuisance, they’re a full-blown aural assault.

Photo: Andrey Popov

In 2016, the first scientists settled themselves in the Francis Crick Institute in London, a biomedical research facility that cost about A$1.3 billion to build.

It took years to plan and was hailed as a veritable cathedral of science — with vaulted ceilings, tall glass windows and a vast central atrium.

But just a year after its grand opening, it became clear there was a problem.

In the “collaborative” open-plan space, the boisterous laughter of colleagues celebrating their PhDs mingled with the sound of hundreds of scientists earnestly discussing their projects — and created an environment where, some occupants complained, they could barely think.

For all its lofty aims, ironically, the building fell short in the face of some scientific truths — that, for some of us, listening to other people’s chit-chat can be about as enraging as having a colleague repeatedly click their pen against your forehead.

Ever since its invention in 1904, the open-plan office has conspired with several other timely creations to make the modern workplace an aural nightmare: mobile phones with novelty ringtones; chewing gum; printers and photocopiers; crisps carefully engineered with a satisfying 70-decibel crunch.

According to a 2015 survey of the most annoying office noises, conversations were rated the most vexing, closely followed by coughing, sneezing and sniffing, loud phone voices, ringing phones and whistling.

Why do we find it so hard to be around these everyday noises?

Noise affects us differently

First, there is an extraordinary amount of variability in what individuals can tolerate.

At one end of the scale, workers may actively enjoy the ambience of a noisy office.

Working to music is also extremely common.

At the other end of the spectrum are those with such an extreme aversion to sound that it qualifies as a condition.

Misophonia is a mysterious disorder in which certain everyday sounds can trigger extreme anxiety, rage or panic.

The offending noises range from those we can all relate to, such as the whistling of obnoxiously cheery colleagues or when people say “ahh” after drinking to slightly, err, less reasonable complaints, like when people swallow or breathe.

So why aren’t we all affected by noise in the same way?

It helps to be an extrovert

A person’s level of extroversion is thought to be a key aspect of their personality.

According to one prominent theory, extroverts are inherently “understimulated”, so they tend to seek out situations which increase their level of arousal — like noisy environments.

Meanwhile, introverts have the opposite problem; as the famous poet, novelist and introvert Charles Bukowski put it: “People empty me. I have to get away to refill.”

The reasons some people get so riled up by oddly niche sounds, like ice shaking or lettuce chewing, are less clear.

Research into misophonia might provide some clues; several studies have found that the brains of people with the disorder are fundamentally different.

Misophonia is surprisingly common.

And if the sound of a colleague chewing their morning croissant makes you want to scream into your keyboard, you’re in scholarly company.

The naturalist Charles Darwin, the writer Anton Chekhov and the novelist Marcel Proust are all thought to have suffered from the condition.

Even if you like music, quiet works best

However, though your personality and the wiring of your brain can have an impact, it mainly seems to affect the degree to which you are disturbed by noise; most studies have found that everyone is better at complex tasks in total silence.

There are two main ideas about why we’re distracted by the clatter of a noisy office.

The first is that it’s down to the fact that background noise contains sounds that are similar to the ones in your head.

“Some tasks require you to use your ‘inner rehearsal mechanisms’ — your inner voice — to try to remember things in order,” says Nick Perham, a psychologist at Cardiff Metropolitan University.

“For example, if you’re trying to remember someone’s phone number, then you will probably mutter it under your breath.”

For these tasks, the theory goes, any environment with an element of human speech will undermine your ability to concentrate on your own thoughts.

The second idea is that the way our brains handle the information that’s important for completing certain tasks and the way they deal with background noise is somehow in conflict.

It’s thought that just like Amazon’s home assistant, Alexa, has to listen in on people’s homes 24 hours a day to catch commands, our brains can’t ever switch off to what’s going on around us.

Even when we’re not consciously paying attention to them, we always have our ears on the order of the sounds in the background — like a ping from mobile phone, then a cough, then a sneeze, then some laughing — just in case they start to appear in an order that means something, such as “Hi”, followed by our own name.

This means that when we have to focus on other sequences of information, such as a list of numbers, any kind of background noise is particularly distracting.

Aesthetics versus acoustics

This has critical implications for the way we work.

If we really are all affected by background noise, even if we think it helps us to concentrate, then the modern trend for open-plan offices is seriously flawed.

We might differ in our preferences, but our biology is universal.

In the meantime, organisations that put aesthetics ahead of acoustics, with fancy atriums, open-plan layouts and lots of echo-prone glass, are likely to fall behind.

* Zaria Gorvett is a freelance science journalist. She tweets at @ZariaGorvett. Her website is zariagorvett.com.

This article first appeared at www.bbc.com/worklife.

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