Unless you are very geeky, the thought of architectural acoustics is probably enough to put you to sleep. But if I told you it could mean something that could get between you and enjoying your food, would you pipe up?

It it well documented by now that noise affects one of our most prized senses, taste. However, it is not only our taste that can suffer from excessive decibel levels; almost all aspects of a dining experience can be shaped by a restaurant’s noise environment.

Despite this, restaurateurs are still creating the type of clamorous restaurants that mean dinner can lead to a hoarse throat the next day.

While I feel like I am perhaps beating the drum a little too much here, even for this blog, maybe its time to show how excessive noise can actually harm the income of restaurants:

1. The Noise & Taste Theory.

review about difficulty communicating because of restaurant noise
The taste theory has been around for a while and suggests that the louder an environment is, the less likely you are to enjoy your food.

In general, higher noise levels reduce the perception of the saltiness and sweetness of food and masks its aroma. Scientists agree that the more decibels a diner is exposed to, the less they will enjoy their food, as flavours and aromas are suppressed.

(Oddly, the texture of food appears to benefit from high noise levels, but that is another kettle of fish altogether.)

The science around why this occurs is not rock solid, however, researchers believe that the evidence points to this being simply where you devote your attention. Background noise can easily draw your attention away from your food.

The greater the restaurant background noise, the less likely diners are going to appreciate the food you dished up, the less likely they are to consider returning – pretty simple.

2. Stress Response

Tripadvisor review discussing high noise levels in a bar
As US author and food-critic Thomas McNamee pointed out to me in an email last year, changes in our hormone levels can be triggered by high levels of background noise. As McNamee wrote: “noise raises levels of adrenaline, norepinhephrine, and (worst) cortisols, in effect creating the sensation of anxiety and even fear.”

No one wants to feel anxious when they are meant to be out enjoying dinner. The more anxious a diner is, the less comfortable they are going to feel, the less likely a return visit is going to be on the cards.

3.Service Compromise

Two online reviews criticising a restaurant due to its poor noise environment

How many times have you clearly communicated your meal preferences to your waitress or waiter, only for the exact opposite of what you ordered to be plonked before you half an hour later?

Personally, if a waiter or waitress doesn’t repeat back to me the precise order I just gave them, I turn into a nervous wreck imagining what they could have possibly taken down incorrectly.

For restaurants – high noise levels can make even the most adept attendants falter.

Conversation voice levels range from 50 -55 dB and speaking or projected voice levels range from 60-70 dB, generally speaking.

A 2009 study of eight typically modern restaurants in Boston found that the average decibel level was 78.

Add to this the intricacies of the sound of language and it is even more problematic: Vowel sounds are loud low frequency sounds usually ranging from 45 – 60 decibels in level.

According to Teach Logic, experts on the intersection between noise levels and student learning, vowels add little to the intelligibility of a word. Conversely, consonants, are more nuanced and of higher frequencies (plurals, verb tenses, possessives) and play a critical role in word recognition. In normal conversation consonants usually range from 20-35 dB in level.

The highest recorded level in the Boston study was a restaurant with 97 decibels – equivalent to the sound of a working newspaper.

Studies have shown that poor service is the single most important factor for diners. If your waiter can’t hear over the clamour, then customer satisfaction will undoubtedly suffer.

4.We Dine To Socialise

Negative online review of restaurant noise
For bars and pubs, noise can actually have a (somewhat) positive effect. A study of two French bars revealed that the higher the background noise level (particularly from music), the number of drinks and the speed at which they were drunk by patrons increased significantly.

While screaming into the ear of your friend in a busy pub is part and parcel of the pub life, most of us don’t want to do the same at a restaurant.

The “Inverse Square Law” teaches us that for every doubling of the distance between a sound source and the recipient of the sound, a 6 dB drop would occur.

Unless you are ontop of one another, the further you are away from your fellow diners, the more you have to raise your voice to communicate. The more you raise your voice, the more you add to the ambient noise level of the room, and the more additional strain you have to put in to talk over the heightened noise. A self-perpetuating cycle if there ever was one.

We remember good social experiences and want to replicate them. If we remember that one restaurant as being the one where you couldn’t hear your friend four feet away, the chances of returning are slim.

According to the results of a recent Zagat Survey, when restaurant-goers were asked “What irritates you most about dining out?”, “noise” was highlighted as the second most common complaint, behind poor service .

Noise can affect almost all areas on which a restaurant is judged – food, service and atmosphere – and for most modern restaurants, that is bad news.

How much consideration to you give to noise when dining out? Do you take it into account? Do you think excessive noise spoils your meal? Let us know below…

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