I usually tell people that I ‘am oversensitive to background noise’ or ‘have a hearing problem’ if I need to explain that I find certain types of places unbearable, but actually the problem goes much deeper than that and also has a visual aspect.
Why do I want to tell this? Noise sensitivity is like an invisible handicap that is incomprehensible to most people and very hard to explain. This is my chance to explain it, in writing and with all the time I need.
Most people can effortlessly filter and sort an impressive amount of noises and visual inputs simultaneously, tuning them in or out according to their relevance. The ability to tune in to relevant conversations and ignore everything else is called the cocktail party effect. It is a truly amazing multi-tasking skill not fully understood by scientists.
I my case, the cocktail-party ability seems to be inferior to most other peoples’. I am over responsive to irrelevant sounds and other random impacts from the surroundings… it feels like missing filters. I am also bothered by visual noise such as flashing neon decorations, camera flashes and visual clutter.
When overloaded with impressions, my mind becomes slow and unresponsive and eventually crashes like a computer with too many applications open at once. I feel numb, unwell and stuck in zombie-like inertia; trapped inside my body in an state of stress and disorientation that I can not express or remove.
The crisis may improve shortly after leaving a (brief) problem situation; however often it take days to recover, where I need to be by myself in familiar, calm surroundings, sleep a lot and disconnect from the world. If I need to deal with problem situations on a daily basis then they drain all my energy and I tend to feel nauseous, exhausted or depressed most of the time. So I pick my problem situations with care. I make sure there is plenty of recovery time between them, and that they are worth the struggle.
The type of situations that tend to cause problems are:
1. Overwhelmingly noisy and confusing places
such as malls, noisy restaurants, parties, business networking events, family dinners, city train stations and all sorts of crowded reverberate halls and rooms with hard surfaces and lots of chatter and ambient noise.
The problem is that the amount of ambient noise is horrendous and often painful, but others don’t experience the same places in the same way.
Others’ ability to cope with horrific noise infernos is the real problem. There would not exist a single Westfield shopping centre, noisy restaurant or horrendous food court if everybody were like me, because those places would have no customers and all go broke within the first year.
2. Painful and stressing sounds
Loud volumes can be painful (like noisy restaurants or heavy road traffic nearby), but also specific high pitched sounds like trucks and road work vehicles’ reverse gear alarms, the relentless beeping from self-serve cash registers in supermarkets, ATMs ‘remember-to-take-your-card-and-money’ beeps and some shops’ entrance-bells. I hate certain shops and never buy anything there solely because of their shockingly loud entrance-beeps (e.g. 7-Eleven).
3. Conversations and background noise
Keeping up a conversation while surrounded by other conversations can be a challenge. I hear some words, while others ‘cut out’ due to overlapping sounds. I then try to guess the meaning based on the words that made it through, and most of the time I get most of it right enough to keep up a conversation that sounds reasonable. However, it is hard work and not enjoyable.
Conversations can be challenging even without noise for a number of reasons. With distracting and painful noise added and words missing, they are a pest. On the other hand it is unwise to tell people to piss off in a situation where one is supposed to make friends. Not talking won’t work out either, because it positions me as a weird lone wolf hanging out awkwardly by myself in a corner while everybody else is busy getting to know each other. A female lone wolf looks particularly weird. It signalises ‘looser’ and ‘out of business’ to people and I should be grateful if anyone wants to talk to me.
That dilemma is the reason I rarely enjoy meeting new people.
4. Phone conversations and background noise
Phone calls tend to be sudden, the sound quality may be poor, the person on the other end tends to be a stranger with an unfamiliar voice and accent, random polite chat with strangers is expected, and there are no visual cues to hint how the person thinks and what she/he means.
Bits of phone talks cut out due to overlapping background noise: people talking, keyboard sounds, scrambling with papers… and I try to guess the meaning based on the surviving bits while doing my best to sound fully informed and professional. I hate phone calls, but I am getting better .
5. People who talk all the time
Many women* who talk a lot are warm and friendly persons who would be great to know if they could just PLEASE STOP TALKING ALL THE TIME.
I don’t understand why they do it. Maybe it is a way to disguise a lack of anything important to say by drowning with words everybody else’s ability to think. In any case, the relentlessly interrupting river of words is maddening.
I really don’t want to be rude or cold to people. However, a never ending stream of noisy irrelevant information can quickly bring me to the brink of explosion, where I just want to run out or say something rude to clear the air and stop the talk. When I can’t escape then here we go, the root of countless family rows and accusations of being intolerant to people. I am tolerant, I just need my space to think and process what people say and can’t do that if they constantly talk. Then I’ll rather stay away.
All in all
All in all this may sound like I can hardly make my way around, but that isn’t the case at all.
First, because I have strategies to deal with most situations. For examples ear plugs help, a head set can significantly improve phone conversations, and I have social strategies and mind tricks that help me to cope and hide weaknesses.
Second, I have described the problems at their peak for the sake of explaining; but it is not always that bad because the intensity of the problems vary from situation to situation and from day to day.
Many individual situations are manageable with a combination of ear plugs and planning. It is just that all together the challenges add up and combine in troublesome ways, and they do create a number of obstacles for job search, business networking and socialising.
- The links have been moved and can be found on the link-page about sensory processing issues
Please feel free to add relevant links in the comment track!
*men too, but they rarely do that.