In 2019, Dr. Megan Elias, director of the gastronomy program at Boston University, told NPR that “food and business have been linked since as far back as the ancient Sumer (who established civilization as we know it around 4000 B.C.).
From crowded marketplaces to inns and pubs of the 15th and 16th centuries in the time of the “merchant economy” to modern day, we have always conducted business around food and in loud environments. Why is that? It could be the simple camaraderie that is shared over a meal that breaks down defenses, making strategic conversations easier.
Empires were established, built and bought in this environment.
In the 1950s, it became a cultural norm to entertain clients/customers in thanks for their business and in the hopes of persuading them to spend more with elaborate meals at the country club or a premier restaurant. The psychological effects of perception and impression were very important, and still are today. However, back then, restaurants were mostly quiet environments, maybe with a hint of piano in the background. Carpeted floors and the use of thick window curtains added a sense of luxury and, in turn, absorbed the sounds within the restaurant, allowing conversations to stream with ease.
Thanks to the disco dance era that all changed. All of a sudden vibrant, energetic music was pumped into dining establishments to create a new kind of atmosphere – almost party-like.
Today, decades later, the party continues. Trends continued to evolve the party atmosphere as rooftop bars with swimming pools became a new destination to entertain. These places associate themselves as young, hip and vibrant and, thus, the exciting places to be, be seen and take customers.
For business professionals, it is all about establishing the perception of being modern, cool, and “in the know”, which can create the appearance of the kind of people or organization in which you want to do business.
As business entertainment became a mainstay, companies began using it for internal team dinners for bonding exercises, to improve collaboration and even simply boost employee morale. Even coworking spaces are creating specific environments to encourage networking and collaboration that are akin to a really sleek lounge, complete with a DJ.
Startups, small businesses and freelancers made it a relevant norm to conduct business in popular restaurants, cafés, coffeehouses and even lounges due to the affordability. But, again, very loud environments that for some reason we deem a good choice for discussing business or brainstorming.
Over time restaurant design changed, and for good reason. Carpet collects food and spilled drinks. It must be cleaned on a regular basis to avoid any mold or bacteria growth that would mean a slap on the wrist by the Department of Health, so restaurateurs decided to make it easier and cut carpeting from the design. But they also cut window treatments and other sound absorbers for what would become a clean, sleek restaurant design which emitted a new perception of luxury – trendiness.
The problem is that these new design trends do nothing to disguise the natural sounds of a running restaurant that most diners don’t want to hear, along with the thumping House Music. So, the more popular a restaurant, the more clanking of dishes and such, the louder the music got to cover up those sounds and the harder to hear.
These restaurants may have achieved their desired level of sleek nightclub feel intended to be the hippest place in town, but it makes it nearly impossible to have a meaningful conversation with others at your table, let alone conduct business.
According to a 2019 former industry publication, Restaurant Briefing, article, restaurant reviewers noted noise level averages of 80 dBA or higher in restaurants around the country. Prolonged exposure to this, or a higher level of decibels, can cause ringing in the ears once removed from the environment.
For those who struggle to hear or have hearing loss mild to severe, it can feel as if the sounds are bouncing off every surface, making what should be an enjoyable experience very unpleasant. And if you are also trying to conduct work, you’re more likely to misinterpret what your customer, prospect or team members are trying to convey.
Even your corner coffee shop tries to cover up the loud sounds of frothers with, you guessed it, louder music, or what they call ambiance.
Another complication is that we don’t know how long we’ll be dining out and engaging with others wearing masks.
Unfortunately, restaurant, café and coffee shop owners are not willing to sacrifice the atmosphere they’ve created to save yours, or their, hearing. Why? Because often, the atmosphere is actually a huge part of the brand experience that they are offering to consumers.
So why are we still conducting business in environments that are inherently designed to keep these conversations from occurring? It goes back to the idea of breaking bread together. It’s the simplicity of sharing a meal that brings us closer.
The San Francisco Chronicle now reports decibel ratings of restaurants allowing individuals to make the best decision for themselves. While it may seem like a bit much, the value of this ranking can be the difference between accepting the merger or ordering a burger.
If you’re not in the San Francisco area, be sure to read reviews of restaurants and venues before deciding to make it a destination to conduct business.
We also recommend the Soundprint App, which uses a decibel meter to measure a venue's sound level and lists community generated ratings of venues for sound levels (think Yelp for noise). It can be a real help in finding just the right atmosphere for your next dinner or business meeting.
And if neither are a choice for you, use devices like the Noopl to enhance and clarify hearing for better listening and participation.