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Eating out loud: why restaurants are getting noisier

Fewer soft furnishings, hard tiled floors – or a concerted effort to get diners out the door quickly?

Look around you in a restaurant and they will be there. Their faces lit by the blue light of a smartphone screen, they scroll with one hand and stab at their food with the other. These mute diners are not eating alone; they sit opposite a companion who is just as engrossed in Twitter. These are not internet-obsessed “millennials”, though, but people who came out for a meal and were unable to hear their own voice above the din.

As far back as in 1998, restaurant critics for the San Francisco Chronicle started carrying decibel meters so that they could rate eateries by noise level. Since then, restaurants have only got noisier. A study published in July by the charity Action on Hearing Loss (AoHL) found that 81 per cent of those surveyed had experienced difficulty holding a conversation while eating out.

The rise in noise levels is partly to do with the trend in interior design for minimal soft furnishings. If you remove tablecloths and replace carpets with tiles, you create hard surfaces that amplify sound, as well as increase the volume of scraping chairs and clinking cutlery. This hipster aesthetic is often accompanied by loud music, which forces diners and staff to raise their voices.

“[Modern restaurants] are designed with looks rather than comfort in mind,” Jeremy Luscombe, the marketing manager at the acoustics treatment firm Resonics, told me. His firm frequently offers advice to restaurants wanting to reduce noise after receiving complaints from diners. “Acoustics is an afterthought. Architects often don’t take it into account when designing a space.” Putting up curtains or laying carpet would help, but this would be “impractical”, given the popularity of minimalist design. Instead, Resonics suggests installing panels made from a high-density insulation material known as glass wool.

Peter Wilby wrote about his experience of loud restaurants in a New Statesman column in September. He told me more about them. “I have a lifelong hearing problem that makes it difficult sometimes to understand speech, and noisy restaurants make it almost impossible to understand what my companion is saying,” he said. “Increasingly, I find that friends, as they grow older, also have hearing problems. . . and, being unused to such problems, find it even harder to cope than I do. We frequently have to change tables or leave.”

Wilby is far from alone in this. AoHL found that nearly 80 per cent of respondents had left a restaurant early because of noise. There are more than 11 million people in the UK with some form of hearing loss, and a substantial proportion of the survey’s respondents have good hearing but still reported disliking noisy restaurants. Yet the catering industry doesn’t seem to want to keep these disgruntled customers onside.

According to Rob Burley, the head of public affairs and campaigns for AoHL, this is partly because the problem is invisible. “People are simply staying away,” he said. AoHL is encouraging people to be outspoken about noise, in situ at restaurants or on review sites such as TripAdvisor. “Once the industry starts to see the scale of the business they’re losing out on, they’ll want to act.” There are simple steps that restaurants can take, he said, such as turning off speakers or fitting rubber caps to chair legs so they don’t scrape.

Yet there is a suggestion that the high noise levels are deliberate. Marina O’Loughlin, the restaurant critic for the Guardian’s Weekend magazine, told me she sees the loudness as an effort “to get us in and out faster”. “It’s really hard to make money from restaurants,” she said. “That has led to a number of elements that benefit restaurateurs more than diners: no reservations, uncomfortable bar-stool seating, loud music. It means you eat and get out – no impetus to linger . . . I don’t like it at all, but I understand it.”

Joe Mossman, who runs the Japanese restaurant Tenshi in Islington, north London, told me that he thinks the problem is partly a result of the spread of chain restaurants, where the manager has no personal stake in developing customer loyalty.

“The other, more cynical explanation,” Mossman said, “is that the noise is deliberate, probably to make people drink more. You get parched and hoarse trying to have a conversation. The inevitable outcome of that is that you buy more drinks.”

Not being able to hear while out for a meal can be isolating. It shows how a great deal of the joy we take in eating out is social – food doesn’t taste as good if you can’t share your enjoyment. It’s no wonder that diners appear ever more obsessed with checking their phones. As O’Loughlin put it, “It all feeds into itself: I can’t hear, so I might as well instagram my dinner.” 

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia