Throughout our daily lives, sounds we used to share have been filtered out or have simply stopped. When I started my career, offices were alive. Phones rang. Typewriters clacked. Somewhere, maybe only in the mailroom, a radio would play. And all around, people talked, on the phone and to each other.
And today? We sit lined up in cubicles, eyes forward, mouths shut. Our colleagues communicate with us on Gchat or Slack, even if they sit next to us. Professional acquaintances email. Friends text. Nobody calls, and music is piped directly into our heads.
For the first time in history, we can tune most of our sonic environments to our liking, whether we’re at home or not. On our way to and from work or anywhere else, we decide what we want to listen to, choosing from an unseen jukebox that holds, as the former New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff put it in the title of a recent book, “Every Song Ever,” not to mention thousands of podcasts that will begin and end precisely when we tell them to.
If we stuff strange white sticks in our ears, or wear “noise-canceling” headphones, or roll up the car windows and turn on the air-conditioning, we don’t have to listen to any sounds that we haven’t chosen, or that weren’t chosen for us by the helpful algorithms of a music-streaming service. Life in the 21st century means never having to hear the person who stepped on your foot say, “I’m sorry.”
Unless you’re in a restaurant. When your feet are stepped on in a crowded dining room, you hear an apology (most of the time). Right behind you, they’re talking about “BoJack Horseman,” which is funny, because you and your friends were having the same conversation five minutes ago. Did the idea jump from your table to theirs, like a virus? Beyond their table, who knows what anybody is talking about? All you can hear is one long roar.
But there are different kinds of roars for different kinds of crowds. There used to be information in the sound of a busy office. In the age before earbuds, an overheard phone call between your boss and her mother could tell you more about their relationship than she ever would. Without earbuds, even the silences have something to say; the quiet of concentration is different from the quiet of procrastination.
And there is information in restaurant noise, depending on who is in the room and why they are there. There is the skipping, questioning rhythm of flirtation; the confident bleat of people showing off money; the squawk of debate. People getting to know each other are loud in one way, and old friends are loud in a completely different way. A table of six men on the Lower East Side vibrates at one frequency, and a table of six women on the Upper West Side at another.