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A little noise with your coffee, ma’am

A FRIEND OF MINE now avoids the popular practice of taking a break or meeting friends in cafes. It’s not that she has suddenly become anti-social or that she has taken a dislike to our national beverage, coffee. It’s just that she finds cafes and coffee bars to be too… well… too noisy.

“I don’t like the racket and I don’t like to have to listen to music I’m not interested in or that I don’t like”, she said.

She’s not alone. Another friend offered the same thought, blaming the modern trend to hard surfaces in coffee shop design. These reflect an already too-high level of noise, he says. He also says that the trend to have open kitchens, that is, kitchens not separated from the cafe’s public area by a wall, adds to already too-high noise levels.

Since those thoughts have been offered to me, I’ve started to listen when I stop by for a cappuccino. And, I’ve discovered that my friends are right. It’s not that I haven’t noticed the high level of noise in cafes before, I became aware of it some time ago, it’s just that I‘ve accepted it as part of that environment and pushed it into the mental background. I guess most people do this.

Unfortunately, my favourite cafes here in Manly are the noisy type. The Interpolitan, a small place two blocks from the village centre and a block from the surf beach, serves good coffee but the noise level inside (alternatively, you can sit outside on the footpath) can sometimes by quite high. It’s variable. In contrast is Candies, down near the food co-op. A long, narrow space with the coffee machine at the far end and the kitchen blocked off from the cafe, Candies is quieter.

Food preparation a noise affair

Where does this noise come from? I set out to find out and discovered that, mainly, it’s from the making of the customers’ coffee.

First, the barrista empties used coffee from the filter by banging it on some receptacle. This produces a loud, jarring and distracting racket. Then there’s the loud, pressurised hiss as the coffee is made. And the clank as the cups and saucers, and plates for food, are set out for filling.

All of this noise bounces back and forth from the the hard surfaces of floors and walls. There is a rationale for hard surfaces that is perfectly understandable, of course – they make for rapid and easy cleaning. But the often high level of this incidental clatter from the coffee and food serving process can make for hard hearing of the person you’re conversing with.

Why do we need music?

Cafes and coffee shops that insist on playing music add an additional source of noise to the kitchen and coffee machine clatter.

Sometimes, music is played at so high a level that I have seen customers ask that it be turned down because of difficulty in carrying on a conversation. You cannot help but notice, sometimes, that the music and its volume is chosen for the benefit of staff rather than customer. This, of course, is a bad business decision because it could alienate customers…. they will choose not to go to a coffee shop where the ambience is not to their liking.

The best cafes play no music, knowing that their customers stop by to meet with friends and business contacts or to take a break from the turmoil of the day and enjoy a brief interlude reading the newspaper or just sitting without thinking of anything in particular. Those coffee shops offer an oasis of comparative quietness, providing the food preparation noise is kept at a relatively low level.

The insanity of cafe video

A recent trend has seen the appearance of big screens in cafes. These usually have the sound turned off, thankfully, relying on the text readout to follow what is being said.

These, too, are an intrusive distraction from conversation because the moving image attracts attention, taking it away from your conversation or your reading. I usually sit so I can’t see the screen. Thankfully, a cafe I frequent has got rid of its screen – hopefully for good and not just for repair. The sight of the blank wall with the empty bolt holes where the screen was once attached was, for me, very welcome.

What to do?

Cafes obviously vary in ambient noise level. Some, particularly those in which the kitchen is separate or where they have carpet on the floor, have little by way of ambient noise and you can carry on a conversation in comparative aural comfort. But others have a level of noise that makes conversation at a sane level all but impossible during busy times, especially those that wrongly imagine that by playing loud music they are somehow doing their customers a favour.

A tactic is to sit as far away from the kitchen and coffee machine as possible. This helps, but it doesn’t help all that much in smaller cafes with hard, noise reflecting walls. And it does little to ameliorate the jarring  BANG BANG BANG! as the barrista empties the used grounds. Weather allowing, you can sit outside at the footpath tables and avoid the racket.

Nowdays, I seek out the quieter cafes, especially if I am having a meeting or a get-together with friends. And since my friend’s comments about ambient noise level, it – like the taste and temperature of the coffee – is something that registers.

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