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In 2016, the first scientists settled themselves in the Francis Crick Institute in London, a biomedical research facility that cost about £650m ($837m) to build. It took years to plan and was hailed as a veritable cathedral of science – with vaulted ceilings, tall glass windows and a vast central atrium. But just a year after the building’s grand opening, it became clear that there was a problem.
In the ‘collaborative’ open-plan space, the boisterous laughter of colleagues celebrating their PhDs mingled with the sound of hundreds of scientists earnestly discussing their projects – and created an environment where, some occupants complained, they could barely think, let alone concentrate on the next Nobel Prize-winning discovery.
For all its lofty aims, ironically, the building fell short in the face of some scientific truths – that, for some of us, listening to other people’s chit-chat can be about as enraging as having a colleague repeatedly click their pen against your forehead.
Ever since its invention in 1904, the open-plan office has conspired with several other timely creations to make the modern workplace an aural nightmare: mobile phones with novelty ringtones; chewing gum; printers and photocopiers; crisps carefully engineered with a satisfying 70-decibel crunch.
The problem has even spawned a popular Reddit thread, in which people vent their feelings about a variety of surprisingly specific office sounds. One user gets riled up when the woman who sits near them shakes ice in a reusable plastic cup, while another says they can identify exactly what their colleagues are eating – like lettuce – based on the squelchy-crunch alone. Their message? They hear it all – and it’s not just loud in your head.
The designers of London’s Francis Crick Institute didn’t take into account acoustics – and the noises that carry because of the high ceilings (Credit: Alamy)
According to a 2015 survey of the most annoying office noises by Avanta Serviced Office Group, conversations were rated the most vexing, closely followed by coughing, sneezing and sniffing, loud phone voices, ringing phones and whistling. Why do we find it so hard to be around these everyday noises? What is it about them that allows them to lodge in our brains and make it impossible to think?
Noise affects us differently
First up, there is an extraordinary amount of variability in what individuals can tolerate. At one end of the scale, workers may actively enjoy the ambience of a noisy office. Bizarrely, the video Office Sound 2 Hours – which involves exactly what the title suggests, namely two hours of authentic office clatter – currently has around 1,864,570 views on YouTube.
Working to music is also extremely common; a 2011 study of nearly 300 office employees in the UK showed that, on average, they spent nearly a third of their working week listening to various genres. Some said they thought it helped them to concentrate. Others liked it for the exact opposite reason – that it provided a welcome distraction while they worked. Some companies even override individual preferences altogether and broadcast music around entire offices in an attempt to improve their employees’ productivity.
At the other end of the spectrum are those with such an extreme aversion to sound that it qualifies as a condition. Misophonia is a mysterious, newly recognised disorder in which certain everyday sounds can trigger extreme anxiety, rage or panic. The offending noises range from those we can all relate to, such as the whistling of obnoxiously cheery colleagues or when people say “ahh” after drinking to slightly, err, less reasonable complaints, like when people swallow or breathe.
So why aren’t we all affected by noise in the same way? Back in 2011, researchers from University College London and the University of London decided to find out. First of all, the researchers asked 118 female secondary school students to complete a questionnaire, which revealed how extrover
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