Why do I find conversations in crowded places so unpleasant?
July 23, 2010 7:51 AM   Subscribe

Why do I find conversations in crowded places so unpleasant?

I am not terribly shy and I don't have any problem speaking with a loud, clear voice when addressing a group of people. But, when I am trying to have a conversation at a party or other crowded space, I find myself struggling to communicate. Obviously, it's loud, but that does not seem to hinder other people as much as it does me. I feel like my voice is drowned out, that people can't understand what I am saying, or that I have to resort to shouting in an unpleasant way. I feel like I am somehow garbling or swallowing my words so that people can't understand me. I wonder if I am doing something with my voice, or if there is something off with my hearing, or maybe this is just normal. (I think I have good hearing, by the way.) This makes big social events very frustrating/difficult.

Any thoughts on what the deal is and how I can fix it?
posted by Mid to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You might have a very narrow range of focus, and the noise and visual stimulation, etc., kind of put your equilibrium off a little bit.
posted by xingcat at 7:55 AM on July 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

You're not alone. I don't go out to bars too much because I've got crappy hearing and invariably come home with a sore throat and a splitting headache from shouting and trying to concentrate on other people shouting at me in the din. I figure between the booze and the shouting, even someone with good hearing is going to be negatively affected by such an environment. And this is regular, chill bars. I've been to Hip, Happenin' bars (packed wall-to-wall, concert-loud music) and I have no idea how people carry on a conversation. I don't think they do, honestly. Or, rather, they don't have the sorts of conversations you would in a quieter environment, nor do they totally pay attention to what other people say.
posted by griphus at 7:59 AM on July 23, 2010

Crowds can be a little jarring sometimes. I'm probably going against the grain here by saying: have a drink or two and try to relax and enjoy yourself.
posted by bunny hugger at 7:59 AM on July 23, 2010

(Hit post too soon.)

What I'm saying is that you should lower the quality of the conversation you expect to hear and to deal out. Didn't hear what someone said? Don't shout "WHAT?!" but instead interpret their body language w/r/t the context and nod and smile or shake your head and smile. Fake it, pretty much. Similarly, don't expect people to follow every word you say. You're not in a small intimate venue and it's not the place to talk about the deeper meanings of things. Just shoot the shit, gossip, kvetch, whatever.
posted by griphus at 8:02 AM on July 23, 2010

Seconding what griphus said. In my case, I'm just wired to be oversensitive to everything, and that includes loud places and noises. A few times in my 20s, guys would try to flirt with me, which at the time I wanted to have happen, but after my screaming "WHAT?!" three times they would give up and walk away. Unfortunately, you may be just wired that way.
posted by Melismata at 8:02 AM on July 23, 2010

Nthing everyone. People physiologically vary in their ability to screen out their surroundings. Sounds like the make and model that is you was not intended for use in crowded environments.

However, you could also get your ears checked. Having ears that are blocked with wax, for example, would make your situation much worse (as it did for me).
posted by tel3path at 8:07 AM on July 23, 2010

High frequency hearing loss? That's what did it for me.
posted by rtimmel at 8:08 AM on July 23, 2010

Have you had your hearing tested properly? I learned, at age 40, that I have hearing loss. And it's not the hearing loss associated w/ too much loud rock-n-roll or gray hair, it's an unusual pattern and probably genetic. I hear some tones well, and some tones I probably don't hear at all. I'll probably get hearing aids, which, by the way, have improved dramatically with improvements in technology. If you have health insurance, it likely will cover the hearing test, but not hearing aids. Go to someone recommended by a doctor.

Public Service Announcement:
Here are some tips you can use when talking with someone who has a hearing problem:

* Include people with hearing loss in the conversation.
* Find a quiet place to talk to help reduce background noise, especially in restaurants and social gatherings.
* Stand in good lighting and use facial expressions or gestures to give clues.
* Face the person and talk clearly.
* Speak a little more loudly than normal, but don’t shout.
* Speak at a reasonable speed; do not hide your mouth, eat, or chew gum.
* Repeat yourself if necessary, using different words.
* Try to make sure only one person talks at a time.
* Be patient. Stay positive and relaxed.
* Ask how you can help.
posted by Mom at 8:10 AM on July 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm kind of the same. I can't deal with more than once source of sound at a time really - listening to someone speak over music is OK, but if there's more than one person talking I lose the plot completely. And if I'm ever in a situation where I hear two songs playing at once, my brain goes into complete meltdown.

I'm with bunny hugger - have a drink. Your anxiety issues will melt away, and it generally makes you speak a bit louder unconcsiously anyway.

Man, I love drinking.
posted by Ted Maul at 8:16 AM on July 23, 2010

I burst a window in my inner ear years back when snorkeling, causing me to lose most of the >4000hz hearing in one ear.
Day to day it doesn't cause issues, but in noisy places it becomes extremely hard to pick out individual conversations. As mentioned above, you might want to get your hearing checked..
posted by Lord_Pall at 8:19 AM on July 23, 2010

Seconding what griphus said, especially in the 2nd part of his comment. For example, I have had some great times and conversations at MetaFilter meet-ups. But often, I'm not sure I'm hearing 20% of what's being said. But what I think I catch is funny. And I'm sure I'm communicating the same way. (Poorly.) Large group conversations ARE unpleasant if you measure them by the same metric as small group, quiet conversations. But if you can re-wire your expectations, you might be able to enjoy yourself more.

(That said, if I know I'm not in the mood for that type of conversation, I limit my exposure to it. It's hard.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 8:20 AM on July 23, 2010

I can second that, rtimmel. I lost high-frequency hearing in one ear over last Christmas. It's made it next to impossible to hear somebody standing to my right if there is any significant background noise.
I would strongly suggest you get a hearing test, if only to reassure yourself that your hearing is OK. If so, you can concentrate solely on finding ways to attenuate the problem. I usually suspect that other people, who appear (at a party or similar) to be hearing everything somebody says are just pretending, some of the time, in order to keep the conversation going.
posted by tawny at 8:23 AM on July 23, 2010

I have hearing loss and this pretty much describes me. I can listen fine one-on-one but in a noisy place I can't really pick out the voice of whoever is talking to me. I learned to read lips, though, and that helps a ton. Really.
posted by wayland at 8:25 AM on July 23, 2010

Auditory processing disorder?
posted by elsietheeel at 8:27 AM on July 23, 2010

I'm deaf in one ear. aAtually, the bad ear cuts out about 1200 Hz, so all I get is the rhythm, cadence, and tone of voice, but no words (I can still almost have a conversation with my wife in my bad ear, though, since I know her manner of speaking so well.) If you're out of my peripheral vision on the "bad ear" side and there's crowd noise, you may as well not exist - I don't even know you're there. The bad ear just picks up a bunch of low-freq verbal "static" and that overwhelms my entire brain's communication ability. So that's something to look at.

As far as advice on how to communicate in crowds? Drop your voice a little, and learn not to be just *loud*, but to project. Second, watch the lips of the people you're talking to and learn to lip-read. Third, sit at the barstool, watch people in the crowd, and work on isolating their voice - just the tone, not the words - from the din.
posted by notsnot at 8:28 AM on July 23, 2010

I actually don't have hearing loss, but I live someplace really quiet and seem to have trouble untangling a big crowded set of noises when I'm someplace noisy. I asked my doctor about this and he said that you can lose the ability to sort of focus your attention on one noise and tune out the other noises if you don't practice. I find that a lot of times this sort of thing is worse if I'm tired or hungry or stressed out so I try to minimize those sorts of things when I'm out.

If I'm going out with just a few friends, I often ask if we can go someplace that's quieter. Many places, if you ask to be seated someplace farther from a television or farther from a stereo will accomodate requests. The wikipedia term for this is King–Kopetzky syndrome which restates the stress thing and refers to the Social Hearing Handicap index which contrasts the hearing loss you have with the hearing loss that you feel (I was surprised that my hearing was basically normal, for example).

So, stress makes it worse and stress also makes it happen. You can control your environment to a certain extent and it's appropriate to ask to have music turned down (within reason). Ask friends to look in your direction when talking to you so you can use lipreading to sort of assist your understanding. I also have a very polite "excuse me?" tic that I use a lot which is not a grating "WHAT" so it's easier to be used over and over.

For your own part, feel okay talking less. Make sure you're projecting when you speak (some people don't) and do whatever you need to do to not make the situation itself cause the stress that makes this worse. For me having a beer helps. Having more than a beer, not so much.
posted by jessamyn at 8:42 AM on July 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I, too, have some high-frequency hearing loss in one ear. It doesn't affect conversations in most situations, but I sometimes have trouble making things out in crowded, noisy environments. Like griphus suggests, I fake it sometimes.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:45 AM on July 23, 2010

I don't have any hearing loss but also have issues with loudness and processing information. If I'm looking for my keys or anything and my bf has the music on too loud I get completely overwhelmed. Being around multiple conversations is generally ok but if I have to participate in any - I just can't. The other conversations leech into my head. And talking loud makes me feel screechy. I do enjoy loud music though but only in specific circumstances.

But yeah, alcohol helps. Or makes me louder and less likely to care about being loud.
posted by mokeydraws at 9:56 AM on July 23, 2010

Your description of this fits me perfectly. I can't stand talking in loud places, I feel like I'm being drowned out, etc. I have had my hearing tested and it's fine. I don't think that's the problem. It could just be that the pitch of certain crowded rooms is just too close to your own voice, causing it to be hard to distinguish from the background.

Also, cosign pretty much all of mokeydraws's comment.
posted by statolith at 1:40 PM on July 23, 2010

My sense of hearing has not deteriorated too much so far as I have grown older, but my negative sensitivity to complex and annoying overtones and reverberation has.

I most enjoyably wasted much of my youth in pubs, but I now find it virtually impossible to relax in a pub with poor acoustics. I regret leaving a recent mefi meet up early for this reason.

So I just don't go out to bars too often anymore, preferring the music of songbirds in our small back-yard.

Also note: regarding live music concerts, I could take to my hat off to those rare excellent live-sound designers who have the skill to create an acoustic environment full of force and passion combined with clarity and focus. Those guys are geniuses.
posted by ovvl at 3:18 PM on July 23, 2010

I have the double gift of not being able to hear people when there's background noise AND having a voice that does not stand out against background noise. I avoid loug places.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 3:48 PM on July 23, 2010

I have this problem in spades and have found ways to cope. On the listener end, I've discovered that the louder the surroundings the slower you have to talk to get heard. Almost to the point of molasses. I suspect it is because it gives your companions more time to hear you and process it, and as I tend to talk quickly and weave highly nested discussions the more robust the communication the better. Gesticulations sometimes feel like they help but if you don't have their eyes it is pointless. On the hearing end, I find watching mouths to be a small but welcome boost in focus and clarity. I'll also try to repeat their words in my head to gain some additional space to process the conversation. But if there is music playing, I don't know of anything that helps. I hate loud music when I am trying to converse or think or do anything: it scrambles my brain unless I am very very focused already.
posted by TwelveTwo at 6:30 PM on July 23, 2010

Oh, and also I notice that I am absolutely terrible at handling background noise when I am depressed. A conversation in a crowd falls from mere difficulty to impossible. I presume it has something to do with the curious physiological tells of depressive states such as diminished color contrast awareness and decreased sense of taste and smell. I find that during a depression it is as if the outlines of the speech bubbles aren't bold enough. But that isn't too useful an anecdote to you unless there are times when you aren't having problems with this.
posted by TwelveTwo at 6:36 PM on July 23, 2010

« Older Suggest Charities that Support Music Education for...   |   Elder lawyer referral needed, NYC Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.