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Get Your Daily Jolt of NOISE…

…at pretty much any coffee shop.

I love coffee shops. I work alone much of the day and appreciate the opportunity to get out of my apartment and be amongst people. I also love fine coffee. Vancouver is a coffee lovers paradise. So coffee shops are the perfect place for me.

I wish.

Unfortunately I have a love/hate relationship with pretty much all coffee shops: even my favourite local joint. I love getting my first jolt of caffeine early in the day. I don’t love getting the accompanying jolt of ghastly noise that always seems to come with it.

The noise jolt is received as one of, or a combination of, the following sounds: street noises, espresso machines, blenders, the merciless banging of espresso machine coffee filters, chairs scraping on floors, clanging of dishes, excessively loud refrigeration units, baristas shouting out orders, inappropriate music and inappropriately loud music. It all adds up to a stress inducing adrenaline and cortisol pushing experience.

It does not have to be that way. It is that way because we ALL tolerate it. Because we tolerate it, coffee shop owners don’t even think to do something about it when they design their shops. The result is stylish and practical echo chambers that amplify every noise that is being generated into noise hell. Stylish looks like high ceilings with exposed pipes and air conditioning, concrete or tile floors (easy to clean), floor to ceiling windows, wood and metal chairs and tables, concrete or plaster walls with glossy, sleek and beautiful looking espresso machines and refrigeration units adding to the noise fray. What’s absent is anything that can absorb sound.

For our own well being we can’t afford to keep tolerating this noise.

It has been scientifically established that a healthy background noise level (in decibels ( dB)) during the day is 55 dB*. Most urban outdoor environments are now chiming in at background noise levels of 80 to 90 dB. Continuous exposure to 80 dB has been shown to cause damage to hearing. 80 dB is the equivalent of shouting or a busy city street. In Europe, 85 dB is the level at which businesses are required to “provide” hearing protection to employees and 90 dB is the level at which employees are “required” to wear hearing protection.**

This past week I visited 4 neighborhood coffee shops during “slow” times. They all measured in with a background noise level of 70 to 80 dB. Sometimes they were louder inside than outside on the adjoining busy street on which they are situated. I’m not quite ready to stand by any of my noise measurements as I am using a little application I downloaded to my iPhone to measure the sound levels. I need to determine how accurate it is.

Now begins my quest for a peaceful and relaxing coffee shop in the city.

I’m calling my exploration the Coffee Shop Survival Guide.

Do you have a favourite “Quiet” coffee shop in the heart of the city?

* World Health Organisation published guidline maxima for daytime noise exposure (from Julian Treasure’s Sound Business)

** Data reported in Julian Treasure’s Sound Business

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • nancy (aka moneycoach) August 10, 2011, 10:06 pm

    Similarly, I shop at malls only under extreme duress ’cause the music in most of the shops is grating to me. I want at least a small measure of peacefulness as I assess whether or not to buy clothing. There could be a grand marketing idea – one street that was hushed and zen. I bet that street would do very good business!

    • Craig August 12, 2011, 9:11 pm

      I think “noise-free” days would be a cool idea. Like they do car-free days. It would be like that but also all the stores would turn music off and coffee shops would only serve brewed coffee (no blenders or espresso machines going). Or they could close Stanley Park to traffic and people could enjoy listening to the sounds of nature as they wandered about.

  • Bonnie August 10, 2011, 11:06 pm

    Thanks Craig.
    I really notice the noise in my environment since you started talking about the effects. I can’t think of a “peaceful” coffee shop, but I’ll start out on a quest and report back if I find one.

  • Dave Macdonald August 10, 2011, 11:19 pm

    Craig, I’m really enjoying Milano at 36 Powell Street in Gastown. The building seems to absorb sound nicely and the music’s not too crazy if the owner’s around (they’ll turn it down on request).

  • Jim Webster August 11, 2011, 8:26 am

    All good points Graig, thanks for the investigating report. I totally agree with the noise level in these establishments. Several times I’ve asked the music to be turned down as it raises the voice tone level of people trying to talk above it, that added with all the other elements you mentioned, “ya just wanna get out of there”.
    Years ago I lived in Germany, this was before companies like Starbuck even existed, there was a big following for coffee shop establishments. The only seats were high stools with very small tables, the idea being that people wouldn’t stay long once they had finished their coffee, no music just the smell of freshly ground coffee and quite tones of conversation at the tables. Today it somewhat resembles a cattle market, so different from back then.

  • Nicolas August 17, 2011, 11:53 am

    I relate so much with this… specially the first paragraph.
    Just yesterday I had my ears washed… yes. Not everybody does it but I tell you, when you get your natural plugs removed you can feel a new door of perception opening. Bionic ears, no fiction.

    And now dealing with the anxiety caused with noise over stimulation, no wonder I had those plugs, the wisdom of the body, self defense.

    My favorite coffee shops are not downtown, Kafka on 4th just off main st. Terra breads on 5th and ontario.

  • Craig August 17, 2011, 1:28 pm

    Nicolas, I have experienced getting my ears washed a few times in my life. My ears are prone to naturally plugging themselves. It is a very strange yet wonderful experience suddenly becoming present to what you have been unconsciously missing in the auditory world.

  • Paul McCarthy, Pittsburgh October 8, 2011, 6:12 pm

    I know some people who work long days in coffee shops. I’m concerned for their hearing. They stand right next to the espresso machines, blenders, etc. while operating them. The long term exposure to these levels of noise can cause permanent damage to the ears. Wonder how long it will take local government to step in? OSHA needs to check this out.
    With the concern for the cost of health care and keeping the workplace safe it’s more of a priority than many of our authorities seem to place on the issue. It’s time to demand safer work and public places.

    • Craig October 28, 2011, 6:21 pm

      I agree. As I research sound, I have learned that our brains are especially good at filtering out or ignoring unwanted noise and focusing on the sounds we want to hear despite those noises. This is remarkable and also a problem. It seems we are so tolerant of unpleasant and unhealthy noise that we just keep putting up with it. Unfortunately this is at great cost to our well being, peace of mind and, as you say, our actual hearing capability.

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