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

This article was written before the coronavirus outbreak but has been updated to reflect some ideas which might help. An article specific to COVID and anxiety is here.

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.

A while ago, 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 theme tune for a horror movie (you know, just as something really scary happens). Two loud and conflicting noises in one space = headache. Literally. (As a side note there were no staff in sight once I’d got my brew, so I couldn’t even 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 their loudest quiet 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).

On one birthday treat to a spa, a place meant to lend itself to rest and relaxation, 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 to challenge it. (We all need to pick our battles from time to time). Being in noisy places when you prefer the quiet can take its toll – especially when others don’t respect the areas designated for it. It’s the very reason quiet carriages exist, because some people like them that way.

Some people are as comfortable with noise, and I understand that; it may be all they know or all they want. Being noisy may have been reinforced by people being told 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”).

An insistence on noise isn’t a new thing though. At school, teachers would insist children stood at the front to be heard (whether they wanted to or not), as if being loud will get you places. Today “loud and proud” has become so socially acceptable, it’s aligned with success and being confident to the point it seems almost expected. Workplaces being ‘open plan’ are designed for extroverts, in the belief that the “buzz” boosts creativity, whilst people who like the quiet cringe and are forced to engage. It’s not only extroverts who can get stuff done.

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, anxious 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, noisy thoughts can be a sign that says you’ve been triggered by something. They can be 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, just as a noisy one can be the ideal distraction.

Stress can also make people intolerant of noise, becoming easily agitated or upset. Some autistic people, those with 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.

So my point is this: 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, anxious 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 or anxious, but how we respond to stimulation; sometimes labelled 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 is not a disability, but not recognising these differences, and forcing people to be in noisy environments – or to be louder themselves – can be harmful and take its toll.

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% (although there are also people described as “ambiverts”) and have just as much right to have their needs met and be heard (albeit quietly) too.

Tips for Quiet Space during COVID-19 (lockdowns) if you share your living space:

  • Let your family know if you plan to take some time each day for yourself. Schedule it in your calendar if possible, and ask that you be given that time to reset each day if needed.
  • Have a ‘sign’ in the house, or use an object to show those you share your living space with that you need some quiet time. One mum simple wore a clothes peg on her top, so her family knew she just needed to be left alone (where that’s practical).
  • If it’s possible, you could trying getting up a bit earlier in the morning and have your morning cuppa to yourself. This can set the right mood for the day. Alternatively, when everyone else is in bed, you could spend some time reading or practicing a meditation activity.

Not everyone that needs quiet is an introvert and not everyone who feels overwhelm has a diagnosis, which is why the suggestions I’ve offered below might cater for any and all. I would love to see quiet spaces in public places where they aren’t already, for when things just feel a bit too intense and people need some time to reset. 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; this is particularly for people who are overwhelmed by too much stimulus. (You can read more here)
  • 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 might feel overwhelmed. 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, 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. Sunflower lanyards were designed for those with hidden disabilities and some shops now give them away for free. 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.

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, but to recognise and appreciate what helps them function at their best. 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:

  • The sunflower merchandise aims to alert people that you have a hidden disability and 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.
  • 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.

Copyright Delphi Ellis 2020

Published by Delphi

Offers "educational side-bars" which may contain uncomfortable conversations. Been on the telly. © All rights reserved.

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