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Monday, August 2, 2021


Last evening Susie and I went out to dinner at a local restaurant in Carrboro which has a lovely outdoor covered eating space. We had a very tasty dinner that was to a considerable extent ruined for me by the music constantly playing in the background which made it almost impossible to have a conversation at the dinner table. After asking the waitress to have the music turned down (which she did, to her credit) I asked at the front desk, when we left, why they had music at all. The answer, which did not make much sense, was that they had not had complaints.


My experience of nightspots is rather limited, to put it tactfully, but it is my impression from the movies and television I have seen that young people like to go to places that are so noisy that it is impossible to hear what the person next to you is saying. I am mystified by this preference as I find it quite literally painful to be in a place with so much background noise that I cannot hear what others are saying. It is for this reason that I hate cocktail parties and other such events.


I reflected that I have never been to a restaurant in Paris where there was music playing while people dined. What is more, restaurants there seem to be constructed in such a fashion as to deaden rather than amplify the noise so that even when tables are placed quite close together it is possible to have a conversation.


I am obviously in the minority on this one so I have no hope of ever changing anybody’s behavior but I would be curious to learn what the attraction is of this sort of background noise.


Astute readers will discern that I am trying hard to distract myself from the godawful news in the world by searching desperately for trivial matters to comment on. I believe the standard reference here is to the quartet playing on the deck of the Titanic.


Another Anonymous said...

This is not the optimal solution, but in one of the episodes of the Kamorsky Method, Alan Arkin, recently widowed, who has begun to date his teenage flame, played by Jane Seymour, are out to dinner and encounter the same problem. She takes out her cell phone and signals him to do the same, and they converse on their phones while eating dinner.

I highly recommend the series on Netflix. It is oftentimes hilarious, frequently poignant, and depicts the hazards of aging in an acceptably comical manner.

As to why such loud noise is so prominent in American restaurants, perhaps it is because most Americans, even those who know each other, are not great conversationalists.

LFC said...

Management in many places just seems to assume, without much evidence, that people want so-called background music; it's one of the unpleasant features of life in the U.S. (My impression is that *really* expensive, high-end restaurants, where I never go, would be less likely to have it.) Consider also the ghastly repetitive so-called music that runs like an obtrusive ground bass to accompany political ads and makes them impossible (for me at any rate) to listen to, as if many of them weren't bad enough even w/o "music."

David Zimmerman said...

The Kominsky Method

Anonymous said...

I absolutely hate this. I found the same problem in restaurants and bars in the UK and Australia, but not in the northern parts of Continental Europe. I found many places, not just eating/drinking establishments, to be quieter in northern Continental Europe. (Southern Europe is maybe somewhere in between? I haven't eaten out much there.)

I'm also skeptical that you're really in the minority. There are at least many other people who have the same complaint. If you google "restaurants loud music" you can find plenty of people writing and complaining about it. In a Vox article on the topic it says, "Both Zagat and Consumer Reports surveys have found that excessive noise is the top complaint diners have, ahead of service, crowds, or even food issues. Tom Sietsema, the restaurant critic for the Washington Post, also told me noise is 'by far' his chief complaint about the restaurants he reviews."

Another Annymous said...

Right, The Kominsky Method. The Kamorsky Method is the Polish version.

John Rapko said...

Almost everyone I know well complains about the 'background' music and noise level at bars and restaurants--but almost everyone in this charmed circle is ages 55-80. When I've asked folks ages 20-40 about it, they mostly shrug. I do know one recently retired UC Berkeley faculty aged 80 who absolutely loves to go to the bar hang-out for the English Department, where one gets lubricated as if sitting inside a Boeing 747 engine. I don't get it either. My strategy for the past decade is to go to a restaurant early (5:00 hour). Quite often it's been quiet until the crowds show up circa 6:30. God help you with regard to bars--another reason to keep your home liquor cabinet well-stocked.

s. wallerstein said...

Happens in Chile too.

Very irritating.

Schopenhauer says that sensitivity to noise is a sign of high intellligence.

Ed Barreras said...

Drunkenness makes it easier to get caught up in the rhapsody of music, and the louder the music the better. Nightclubs — essentially bars with a dance floor — are designed to induce that experience. When you go to a club there’s an expectation that the music will be loud, because that’s what you’re there for. Normal bars (without a dance floor) often try to produce a mini-club experience. But sit-down restaurants with loud music — yeah, I’m as baffled as you are. I avoid those places.

Dave Colven said...

Fiddling while Rome burns, I suppose the sainted Sigmund would call that defense mechanism denial: of the truly godawful in this case.
The Prof's post about godawful background music made me think of Freud, he was reported to have covered his ears and walked out of restaurants if music was playing, he didn't like noise either, it was one of his objections to America. Although for him the aversion to dinner music extended to all other kinds of music, he just couldn't bear music.
I've been thinking about him lately after belatedly reading Frederick Crews, Freud:The Making of an Illusion, nothing about dinner music there, but it's the hatchet job to end all hatchet jobs.

Charles Pigden said...

I suspect that this is to some extent an age affect. When I was younger I was better at following conversations in crowded noisy venues. Now I am older & deafer it is a lot more difficult. Consequently I like crowded noisy venues a lot less. If I can manage to conduct a conversation, how I feel about the music depends on what they are playing. If I like it well and good. If not not. At my favourite bar the music isn't too loud and on the whole it is music that I like. (often 80s lists) Things only get problematic when it is too busy, in which case it is other people talking that causes me problems.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

I suspect restaurant owners want ambiance, which they think music will provide, so they buy MUZAK systems which can play a hundred channels with different types of music. With the explosion of brewpubs there seems to be a trend to softer live music as well.

anon. said...

Crews is, I think, another of those "god that failed" types. He went from being a committed Freudian to being the opposite.

Tom Weir said...

I agree Professor Wolff. I gave up going to clubs and screaming at people. I usually ended up so flustered I would spill my drink.
I attribute some of it to mt being more of an introvert. So, it is interesting to hear that Paris just designs things differently. Sounds like a good reason to book a trip there.

Ridiculousicculus said...

From a proprietor's perspective, music in restaurants can do any or all of the following:

- Advertising: the music playing in the background of a restaurant or bar can draw fans of the type of music playing into the restaurant or bar, generating additional revenue;

- Sound Deadening/Privacy: Americans are notoriously loud talkers and their children have infamously poor table manners. The music that makes it difficult to hear your dining partner across the table will also distract you from the loud drunk guy at the bar shouting along at the basketball game on the television, or muffle the three year old's screaming two tables down. The French don't seem to have this problem given that their dogs are better behaved than American children, and their children are better behaved than American adults.

- "Vibe": while patrons generally spend only 1.5 - 2 hours in a restaurant, staff will be there for an entire shift. And dining environments that lack music tend to be stuffy affairs that generally require a more formal than casual approach to dining service. So proprietors that aim for a more casual vibe and decorum use music to create a more "fun" environment for staff to work in and for patrons to dine in.

- Turnover/Pace: loud music creates a general sense that an establishment is "busy" and that tables are at a premium; as such, customers are more likely to either order desert/drinks at the end of their meal or leave than to keep occupying a table to chat about the world for an hour after their meal while drinking decaf.

From a patron's perspective, music in restaurants contributes to a "fun" atmosphere and is often part of a restaurant's "theme" - which is as important as food itself or conversation with company.

aaall said...

"The French don't seem to have this problem given that their dogs are better behaved than American children, and their children are better behaved than American adults."

I love being right!

David Palmeter said...

It’s important, I think, to consider relative power/powerlessness when deciding who should not be playing the fiddle while the city burns, or whether to join the string quartet on the deck of the Titanic.

For an emperor (or other with power) to fiddle while the city burns is (can’t think of the right pejorative word, but you get the idea). Ditto for the captain and crew of the sinking ship. If there’s nothing you can do about it, as a practical matter, why not give yourself, and perhaps a few others, something beautiful before you all drown?

The closest I’ve come to facing this problem occurred after 9/11. Our next door neighbor was an Arab woman. I had recently read Werner Klemperer’s published diaries “I Will Bear Witness) about the Nazi years. (Victor was a cousin of conductor Otto Klemperer.) While he was ethnically Jewish, he had converted to Protestantism for convenience. His wife was Protestant, but they were not religiously observant.

When the Nazi’s came to power, the restrictions came—like slices of salami. At first he was not greatly inconvenienced because of his Aryan wife. Soon though he was restricted in his teaching duties and eventually lost his job. Then he was barred from public transportation, and the list went on. Toward the end of the War the couple was arrested and held in a cellar in Dresden set to be shipped to the gas chamber when the firebombing of the city began. They escaped, made their way west until they ran into American troops.

I was particularly taken with the shrewdness of the Nazi imposition of restrictions on Jews—a little at a time, slicing the salami, so that those non-Jews who might object would only tut-tut and not do anything about it. What would I do if something like that happened here toward Muslims or people of Arab descent after 9/11?

I’d certainly help my neighbor as much as I could without risk to myself or my family. But what if there was risk? At what point would I close my eyes, disapprove of course, but do nothing?

One of the few—if not the only—decent things George Bush did in his eight years was visit the mosque in Washington, take off his shoes as he entered, and say this was not a war against a people or a religion. He didn’t eliminate the hate that was out there, but he greatly reduced it. Can you imagine what Donald Trump would have done if 9/11 happened on his watch?

T.J. said...

Maybe we can find some reassurance about at least the state of political life in the US from this passage in a book I'm about halfway through reading called "The Poverty of Liberalism" where the author considers what would happen if voters all decided to vote out the sitting politicians and replace them with socialists:

Is there anyone who really believes that 'the establishment' would try to block this political transformation by such illegal means as voiding elections, refusing to relinquish office, calling out the troops to brutalize and intimidate voters? We shall probably never have a chance to find out, alas, but it seems evident to me that in the face of an aroused citizenry bent upon instituting even so un-American a policy as socialism, the established rulers of American society would be quite powerless.

LFC said...

I see what you did there ;) but I believe the quoted passage was written quite a while ago. I wonder whether the author wd agree w it today.

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