Tag Archives: The Odd Couple

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When a Sound Drives us Crazy

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Many of us may thoughtlessly intrude in the sonic space of another, using all kinds of sonic disrupters.  Others could write extended catalogues of sounds that need to be avoided.

For most of us, sound is redemptive. As with  music or a child’s laugh, it often purifies the air of our cluttered world.  But when a particular sound triggers instant and disproportionate aggravation in a person, a strong negative reaction may result. The condition is little more than a nuisance for most of us, but the psychological discomfort of what is sometimes labeled misophonia can be very real.  In theory, almost any sound can be a trigger.  One auditory assault for many were the shrieking strings composer Bernard Hermann built into Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). We can argue about whether it is actually music. But if it was meant to repel, it usually does its job except for the few that have it as a cell phone ring.  Play it and cringe.

Acquiring Sound Sensitivity

Those directly affected by offensive sounds may go to great lengths to avoid them in the future. I suspect this is especially true for sound centric individuals who thrive on auditory content such as music or other aural stimulation.  As organized sound, music is especially sabotaged by the unorganized dross coming from the spaces and streets of some human habitats. To many of us may thoughtlessly intrude in the sonic space of another for little benefit, using devices that test our patience.  As this is written, I’m sheltering from an onslaught of professional lawn mowers who will cut the grass this week so they can do it again to what hasn’t burned out next week.

Misophonia is perhaps best understood as less of a diagnostic category for serious mental illness than a handy label for any noise sensitivity that is seriously disruptive. Industrial engines and lawn mowers, leaf blowers, cement and metal saws, are among the common tools that may send others fleeing an area. But sometimes we are the transmitters of audible noise that, while not so loud, others still find obnoxious. They include obnoxious vocalisms we dread to hear yet again from others. Loud chewing, endless pen-clicking, throat-clearing, or vocal tics can function like aural red flags.

It works out that, in everyday life, the person with certain aural sensitivities is frequently–if accidentally–matched up with a manic producer of them. It can be a signature of a long and ongoing and sometimes testy relationship.

Part of the fun of Neil Simon’s classic play, The Odd Couple (filmed in 1968), is how Felix’s oral tics begin to grate on the laid-back Oscar. Neither of the divorced men sharing an apartment has made a match that is any better than in their failed marriages. And Oscar’s endless throat-clearing provides a ready example. He had an obsessive-compulsive thing going with his sinuses: the kind of annoyance easily recognized by any couple living under the same roof.

We usually don’t set out to annoy another with the aural refuse we spread so freely. Until we do. The intention to annoy is a break from our best selves, usually in the form of passive-aggressive behavior that provokes but can also be denied.  Such sonic mischief may involve letting a barking dog loose as “payback” to a complaining neighbor, or perhaps playing a music system extra loud to answer the circus of noise that never ceases next door.

Audio engineer Brett Houston “solved” the problem of lead feet incessantly moving around in the apartment upstairs by putting loudspeakers in the ceiling cavities that he had inadvertently broken through by pounding on the ceiling once too often. In the hole Houston placed a large speaker between the joists and directly under the neighbor’s floor. He then put microphones at different points along the underside of the same floor, routing the sound through an amplifier with a short delay. So there was karma in every instance of aggravating foot noise that came back amplified and delayed. The neighbors eventually moved.

If there are lessons here, one is simple.  When purchasing any device that creates a noise, seek information on the decibel level it produces when on. OSHA considers noise pollution a significant health risk, and the primary cause of why most teens have the diminished hearing acuity of their grandparents.  If the manufacturer is ashamed of the racket or excluded from having to disclose the decibel level, they will omit the measurement. One example; Honda makes some home generators that are quiet and a bit more expensive.  Most other manufacturers of home units have lower prices but higher sound levels.

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Tics are sometimes functional. And others? Just annoying.

Humans come in many forms, with custom wrapping that could only be theirs.  The more we get to know a person the more we can identify the signature features of how they address others.  Most of these verbal or visual habits may hardly raise an eyebrow.  But other habits may come to be seen as bumps on the road to fluency: verbal peculiarities that are noticed and, perhaps, an unintended source of amusement.

Communication “tics” are not alway manifest in utterances.  But many are, taking the form of over-used locutions, repeated words or phrases, or unusual ways of verbally ‘punctuating’ words.  For example, many of us fall prey to the silence-filling “auh” when a full stop might be better.  Others of us lean on “you know” or “um” as silence-fillers.  They frequently serve to keep a verbalization sequence alive, as if it was territory to be held against potential invaders.  “Auh” is like a gate that never opens to let another pass.  And “you know” can get especially annoying when it seems to have fully replaced the written equivalent of a simple period.

Alternatively, we may keep a collection of voices available for babies, pets or friends,  unaware that its endless use can be grating. A high-pitched ‘baby’ voice directed to an old dog can may endearing the first few times, but can become a stale as a Frankie Valli hit that is heard a bit too often.

Those of us with allergies or sinus issues know we must  sometimes drive others crazy with coughs, throat-clearing, nose-blowing or worse. Few are as bad or as funny as the Odd Couple’s Felix. The infamous diner scene from Neil Simon’s film isn’t the first time that Jack Lemmon’s Felix was to test Oscar’s patience.

Some  tics are functional.  I had a professor who, when he grew excited about making a point, would begin to trip over his words.  He would pause and then repeat their first syllables, and it was positively riveting: a kind of oral punctuation that worked.

More annoying can be the habits of raising one’s voice at the end of a statement or, conversely, lowering vocal volume to inaudibility. Both patterns can persist regardless of what is being said.  A routine rise in pitch at the end of a thought can leave it sounding like a would-be question, sometimes signaling a tentativeness and turning ideas into “maybe” assertions. The different problem of dropping one’s vocal volume at the end of a thought leaves us unsure of what we heard.  The thought seems to vanish into a fog of receding sound. Film directors sometime miss the pattern when they are working with actors who have never worked in live theater, where there learn to ‘project’ to the back of the house.  The result can leave viewers wondering what was said in the last few words of a line. To be sure, the British sometimes prefer self-effacing mumbles, leaving Americans to check with each other about what the Earl of Whatever was suggesting in the last scene.  That is still preferred to what Brits sometimes hear as rude shouts from their American cousins.

Tics are mostly harmless. Though when they begin to seem like a pattern that is its own sideshow, they can swamp the ideas or feelings that are supposed at the center of an exchange.