Why we need more quiet spaces in public (and what to do if you can’t find one)

Is it just me, or has the world got more noisy lately?

I don’t mean the normal background noise that’s present in modern every day life, like the hum of your central heating, the clicking of keyboards, or the sound of traffic outside your window. I don’t even mean the sirens in urban areas (day and night) which seem to have become part of the norm.

I’m talking about feeling unable to escape the level of noise, wherever you go, even in places you least expect it.

Last week, I had an early meeting in a London venue. I walked towards a café where I could get myself a pre-meeting cuppa, and I could see from just outside there were only three other people sitting there. “Brilliant”, I thought. “It’ll be nice and quiet”.

I ordered my hot drink, and walked further in to take a seat, only to realise there was not one, but two sources of loud sound. The news was on the TV, with the sound on, whilst the stereo was playing what sounded like the screeching noise in horror movies (you know the one just as something really scary happens). Two loud and conflicting noises in one space = headache. Literally. (Just as a side note there was no staff in sight, once I’d got my brew, so I couldn’t raise it).

Then there’s the train. I regularly travel this way and when I do, I instinctively stand at the end of the platform where the “quiet carriage” arrives. Signs on the windows and door clearly mark this as an area for less noise, and no mobile phone use. And yet, time and again, someone will inevitably take or make a call or speak to their co-passenger in what feels like their loudest voice, letting everyone know what’s going on in their lives. (To be fair it doesn’t matter how quietly someone thinks they’re talking, in a quiet carriage you can hear everything. Because, well, it’s meant to be quiet).

And then there was my birthday treat to a spa; a place meant to lend itself to rest and relaxation. In reality, it was busy, noisy and far from peaceful. Even in an area designated for “quiet time” after a gorgeous massage, people were chattering away.

And I get it.

If you haven’t seen a friend for an age, it makes sense that you want to catch up. Yes, I could have said something, but aside from the fact they seemed to be having a great time (I hate being a party pooper), as you can see this happens a lot, and when it happens so often, it becomes exhausting. I have to look after my mental health (and pick my battles carefully) as much as anyone. Being in noisy places when you prefer the quiet can take its toll – especially when others don’t respect the areas designated for it.

This isn’t a new thing though. At school, teachers seemed to insist children stand at the front to be heard (whether they wanted to or not), as if being loud will get you places. Today being loud has become so socially acceptable, it’s aligned with success and being confident to the point it’s almost expected.

Some people feel very comfortable with lots of noise; it may be all they know or all they want. And I understand that. It may have been reinforced by people telling them they’re “outgoing” and “confident” – which society sees as ‘positive’ if not essential attributes. (Some people have even written books about how to be less quiet).

I also know some people find the opposite of noise – silence – scary; people have said it means being left alone with their thoughts, and that can be terrifying without the right help. Noise can be the perfect antidote, cancelling out thoughts during the day (even though they may catch up with you when you lay down to sleep).

When people are nervous or anxious, they might make some noise to try and hide or distract from what’s really going on in their minds. When people don’t feel heard, they may feel they have to make some noise to get attention.

So, don’t get me wrong, I recognise why people can be “noisy”. If it’s their default setting or used as a healthy coping mechanism, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s why I’m not suggesting for a minute we need to make noisy people quiet – not at all.

I’m saying we need to accommodate and respect quiet people too, and create spaces for them. When the world tries to convince everyone that quiet people should be loud, it doesn’t respect our differences or play to our strengths. And it can have a detrimental affect on our mental health as a result.

Not everyone likes noise, and society seems to be moving fast in to a place where we equate loud with funny or confident. To the point where “quiet people” are in danger of being labelled as boring, anti-social, ineffective, and flawed in some way, as if we are missing the ‘noisy gene’.

Having quiet spaces aren’t just for those who prefer peaceful places. If you suffer with anxiety, you might recognise the noise in your head that says you’ve been triggered by something. It can be distracting, deafening, even painful. One lady described it to me as like having a head full of bees. A quiet space can be the perfect safe sanctuary.

Stress can also make people intolerant of noise, becoming easily agitated or upset. And people with autism, Alzheimer’s, chronic pain, hearing difficulties and other considerations that are affected by too much noise and distraction, can also become distressed or overwhelmed when there’s too much stimulus to process.

Now, before anyone says “oh you need to lighten up!”, actually that’s my point.

Not everyone likes noise, and society seems to be moving fast in to a place where we equate loud with funny or confident. To the point where “quiet people” are in danger of being labelled as boring, anti-social, ineffective, and flawed in some way, as if we are missing the ‘noisy gene’.

In fact, people who prefer quiet (and not because we’re shy or stressed, but how we respond to stimulation) – some like to call us introverts – do their best thinking, most creative work and problem solving when given a chance to pause peacefully and reflect: Steven Spielberg, Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt and Albert Einstein to name a few.

A preference for solitude doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy others company. But organisations do need to respect that “group culture” and “open plan” doesn’t work for everyone, and shouldn’t insist on it. (The era of open-plan is coming to an end – find out why corporate quiet spaces matter here).

Introverts can be equally bold and assertive when they want to be, and do their best work in the right environment. (Susan Cain talks about this in her book “Quiet”. You can watch her brilliant TED talk here.)

Image via Tao and Zen

Being different or an introvert or preferring quiet in itself is not a disability, but not recognising these differences, and forcing people to be in noisy environments – or to be louder themselves – doesn’t acknowledge that diversity, and can be harmful.

This is why some organisations have created “Sunflower” products that you can ask for to easily identify that you need quiet. (Not everyone who needs quiet has a recognised disability, but being forced to be in loud places can be stressful or create anxiety in itself). You don’t have to have had a formal diagnosis to ask for or purchase these products – you can find out more here.

If, for arguments sake “loud” people are extroverts, and they make up to half the population, that means introverts could make up the other 50% and have just as much right to have their needs met and be heard (albeit quietly) too.

This is why I would love to see quiet spaces in public places, where they aren’t already. For example:

  • A designated area, where practical, in restaurants or cafés that is a quiet zone. One of my local pubs calls this a “Snug”. I can go in there, have a cuppa and it’s just far away enough from the roaring crowd.
  • Libraries that keep quiet spaces. More and more these days, as libraries introduce more technology to accommodate their customers, the volume of beeps and pings is the equivalent to a self-service checkout at the supermarket. Keep these spaces sacred, or at least have areas that still are.
  • Talking of supermarkets, one supermarket has already designated a day/time where they don’t play music, turn down checkout “beeps” and avoid using the tannoy. (You can read more here) You can also apparently ask for a free sunflower lanyard in some shops like M&S and Argos.
  • Swimming pools, fitness centres and spas could have a “quiet time” much the same as supermarkets for people who would appreciate it.
  • I’ve seen one theatre set aside a space for people who feel overwhelmed during performances. I’d love to see others follow suit, as well as galleries and exhibits if they don’t already. I was delighted when Bletchley Park introduced their “Relaxed Opening” with designated quiet spaces. You can read more about this here. Updated to include: Lewis Capaldi sets aside quiet spaces at gigs for people feeling overwhelmed. Click here
  • Hospitals, GPs, and other health care facilities used to have quiet rooms for staff and families but due to cutting resources some of these have disappeared. I’d love to see these reintroduced where they aren’t already.
  • Organisations that work with people going through difficult times often have quiet spaces to see their clients. It’s just as important that staff have somewhere to go if they need time out to pause, reflect or manage the moment after dealing with something distressing. Our local police force, funded by the Police and Crime Commissioner, has set up a “Quiet Room” for officers for exactly this reason.
  • Airports, in fact any travel terminals could include something similar. And making sure that quiet carriages and designated spaces are respected, especially for people who prefer or need the quiet to chill out before or while they travel. Gatwick Airport has sunflower lanyards that can be requested, and Manchester Airport created the Sunflower Room for people who need some refuge when it’s getting too busy.
  • Some universities, schools and colleges have “time out” spaces – not as a form of punishment, but as a place to go where students need to get away from the chaos. One school near me offers children a “quiet pass” which they keep with them, so that if the noise is getting too much they can absent themselves for a while.

Can you think of any more? Do you know of any places that already have good practices like this?

You can read more about the quiet power of introverts in this BBC ideas video.

Remember this is about society recognising that not everyone enjoys or can cope with lots of noise – and not because there’s something ‘wrong’ with them, they’re just different. They don’t need to be more loud, they need to be respected.

If you can see a friend, colleague or family member is finding all the noise difficult, ask how you can help or what they need. Don’t try to force them to enjoy something which is naturally uncomfortable to them.

If you’re someone who appreciates quiet places and can’t find one:

  • You can purchase sunflower merchandise to alert people that you prefer quiet, especially if it affects your mental or physical health. Here is an example of where you can find it.
  • Headphones are a great help, especially noise-cancelling ones. I wear mine on the train if the quiet carriage is too noisy (or the train doesn’t have one). Someone else I know tends to wear these in restaurants and busy places just so they can keep all the noise at bay.
  • If you have to spend time in noisy places, you could also plan a self-care treat to “reset” afterwards which might include a walk in nature, switching off your phone or sitting with a good book.
  • Mindfulness is a way of life which teaches acknowledging the present moment just as it is. This can include sound – and noise – as the object of your meditation. A teacher can be helpful, and may be appropriate for some who can manage noise this way.
  • You could set up a Quiet Club or meet-up like mine. A place where people can come together , drink a cuppa and sit in quiet contemplation. (More details here).
  • Last but definitely not least where you can, communicate your needs to others (reference the Susan Cain talk above if you found it helpful) to explain why quiet keeps your mojo flowing.

Like I say, it’s not that noisy people need to change, just that we need to be more respectful of people who appreciate the quiet. And we need to be careful that we’re not discriminating against people where noise can do more harm than good. Let’s do better to meet their needs, so we can all live happily – and where necessary quietly – ever after.

For some people, solitude is the air that they breathe.

Susan Cain

You might also like:

Monday Mojo™: feel-good motivation for the week ahead straight to your inbox. Click here.

New “Quiet” clothing available now – click here.

Copyright Delphi Ellis 2020

About Delphi Ellis

Qualified Counsellor, Mental Health and Well-Being Trainer, and Mindfulness Practitioner. Creator of Monday Mojo™. Talks 'Lady Business', raising awareness of factors which predominantly affect Women's Mental Health like pregnancy and domestic abuse. Helping to improve the global conversation, and bring an end to stigma and shaming. Dream Explorer as seen on the telly. Avid tea drinker.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: