The Fragility of Intentional Sound

We pass our days in a constant circus of external noise.  And we are often not even fully conscious of it’s effects.

Sound produced by a person is as fragile as a feather.  As a slight disturbance of air pressure it exists only in the moment, decaying almost instantly.  And at normal levels it is often no match for the environmental noise we accept as the price of living in hives of activity.  Humans produce sound as speech over a frequency range of roughly 100 to 5000 cycles per second.  That’s a fairly narrow range in comparison to what the ear is capable of sensing.  Moreover, the relative volume of our speech is modest. We need to be in a modest-sized room and in good voice to generate sufficient loudness to be easily heard, somewhere in the neighborhood of perhaps 60 decibels (db).  But this measure of sound pressure increases logarithmically, so that continuous exposure to noise above 95 db is sufficiently risky to be recognized as a workplace hazard by OSHA.

Our ability to be the primary source of another’s attention is easily swamped   by a passing ambulance with its siren on (about 110 db), the shrieks of a child on a bus or a railway coach (95 db), or even the nearly constant drone of background music or others talking in the same general area (perhaps 40 db).

Most of the background sound in our lives is this kind of noise. Unless we are in the unlikely space of a anechoic chamber that is built as a lab to exclude most sound (and where the only sound heard would be our own heart pumping), we pass our days in a constant circus of external noise.  We are often not conscious of it.  Indeed, our brain is pretty good at tuning it out.  Awake quickly from a deep sleep, and you can actually hear the ambient noise of a room quickly being “turned on” by the brain.

But here’s the challenge.  We use our voices to do a lot of important work.  We need to be heard often and clearly. Sometimes our livelihood depends on it (as in teaching, face to face sales, conducting meetings and interviews, and so on.  At other times the din of constant noise destroys the chances for making an impression, or for a family to function as a family. The requirement to compete with other “convenience” devices in our lives—dishwashers, televisions, air conditioning, another’s constant chatter—can leave us exhausted.  Nothing is more fragile than the attention of another person.

The most common source of this fatigue is “white noise:” a collection of different frequencies thrown together in the environment.  White noise acts as a sponge soaking up whatever else is existing in the same space.  And because it does not necessarily seem loud to us, we overlook the fact that it is blocking our ability to connect with others.

The ambient sounds in your life will often be more subtle, but still disruptive of the ability to easily dominate another’s attention.  The major culprits: air handling systems in buildings, others talking at the same time, transportation traffic on the ground or in the air, even wind filtering around buildings and other natural objects.

While some sources of disruptive ambient noise can’t be stopped, a savvy communicator seeking the ideal environment for reaching others will do what they can to minimize it.  Shutting doors and windows can help. Turning off air conditioners is sometimes possible (and a common decision in location filming when the crew trying to record location sound realizes the problem).  It also makes sense to ask others in the same space to carry their conversations outside.

We use public address systems to increase the loudness of a voice.  But the better solution with a smaller group is to seek out a small room, or at least to arrange seating so that each person is just a few feet from others in the group.  Part of being successful as a communicator thus means also being at least an amateur acoustician.


Picking our Moment

For the privilege of total immersion, we pay the price of slowly alienating ourselves from ourselves.

We all know the sources that push us away from ourselves. In addition to online searches there are mobile phones, phone apps, tweets and texts, e-mail, cable and broadcast programming, news alerts, RSS feeds, Facebook “notifications,” not to mention blogs like this one.  In addition, many of us are still deeply dependent on newspapers, magazines, movies, product catalogs, Pandora, MP3s, radio and podcasts.  Every waking minute of every day offers some distraction to drain away our abilities to focus, concentrate and—most ominously—face the unpredictable beast of our own thoughts.

We seem increasingly unable to manage our informational world.

On a commuter train recently it was hard to not hear the increasingly heated cell phone conversation unfolding between a passenger and her mother.  It sounded like both sides were picking old wounds that have never quite healed. Charges of emotional neglect and indifference hurled back and forth. The rider’s injunctions were laced with scorn. And she seemed to not notice that others where an involuntary audience to her woes.

One could not help but think: was this really the best moment to have this discussion?  Shouldn’t precious and fragile family relations be maintained in a better setting that could increase the chances of a better result?  In other words, must we accept the socially awkward terms of usage that new media randomly impose on us?  We seem increasingly unable to manage our informational world.

To say we pay a price for trying to bear up under media intrusions of our own making is now obvious. For most of us the compulsion to keep checking back on the open channels we have set up is nearly total and time consuming.  We choose to keep our digital companions on.  We willingly succumb to the “breaking news” story from a cable news outlet, or the random tweets and texts of others.  We may even stop a lively conversation to check a minor disputed fact that has just surfaced.

For the privilege of total immersion, we pay the price of slowly alienating ourselves from ourselves. To the digital native, being truly alone without some sort of external distraction is—irony of ironies—unnatural: almost as if the chatter coming from our own mind is the rhetoric of a stranger.

That’s a problem because we probably have some interesting things to hear from our inner selves.  A common view is that our intrapersonal chatter is often dysfunctional: full of anxieties, useless fantasies, and other forms of impractical mental skywriting. But all these attributes of consciousness contribute to our self-awareness. They are important.  We need time to work this stuff out.  They are among the reasons we walk and sleep. Not giving ourselves the time to know what we think sets us up to be aimless and disoriented.

To be sure, if media theory tells us anything, it is that our media-use habits don’t revert. There’s no waiting-by-the-phone Meet-Me-in-St.-Louis future for any of us.  Media evolve, and we do our best to keep up.  We just have to work a little harder to not allow them to squeeze a precious sentience out of our lives.

The next time you are stuck waiting for something to happen, try listening to the productive insights that your brain has on offer. The trick is moving past the momentary boredom of being truly “with” yourself.  Soon enough you will discover the neglected personal business that truly matters.