I don't want to hear it
February 18, 2015 12:09 PM   Subscribe

I have a hard time tuning out loud strangers in some situations. These aren't places I want to be wearing headphones. How can I get better at tuning them out?

Typically this is when I am at a restaurant, either alone or with my husband. I usually go out to lunch alone during the day and at least once per week there is someone at an adjacent table griping about their job to their unfortunate lunchmate. I bring something to read and my phone to lunch. I can still concentrate on reading, but it doesn't provide enough of a distraction.
This morning as I was having my bagel, it was a 20+ minute, one-on-one check in between a boss and underling preparing for their afternoon meeting. Another time this is often an issue is when we go to a baseball game and the people behind us talk the entire game, and not about baseball. Normal conversation does not bother me, but when the person is overly loud, overly complaining or the group is essentially having a meeting, it bothers me.

I don't have any headphones or earplugs that are comfortable to wear when chewing and if I am with another person, I want to hear them. So, how do I get better at tuning out this noise?
posted by soelo to Human Relations (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Have you had your hearing checked recently? The inability to hear the person next to you over a crowd or nearby interaction sounds like a medical issue.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:19 PM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Meditation. Seriously, pick it up as a hobby. As you become more proficient, it will become easier to tune out distractions.
posted by fireandthud at 12:21 PM on February 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Practice focusing and it will get easier. Some people have processing disorders that make it hard to tune out unimportant sounds (I do) but that just makes that focus more important.
posted by michaelh at 12:25 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't have any problems hearing the person I am with. I would if I wore headphones.

Practice focusing
Can you be more specific about how to practice and what I should be focusing on? Thanks
posted by soelo at 1:07 PM on February 18, 2015

Seconding hearing, especially if this is a change (sometimes you can hear well enough to understand speech quite easily, but a mild shift will impair your ability to direct your attention).

Fatigue can also play a role, so being well rested when you have an important meeting can help.
posted by ghost phoneme at 1:10 PM on February 18, 2015

It sounds like it's less about hearing and more about listening and focusing. If you know all about conversations that are happening around you (boss and underling preparing for meeting), then you're listening and focusing on that conversation, not the one you're having or your book or whatever. All that stuff should just register as "talking noise at the next table" not "boss and underling talking about a meeting."

In conversation with other people, try engaging more with what they're saying to help you focus - google active listening for some strategies, but things like affirming what they're feeling, paraphrasing their comments, etc, to help you stay present.

When you're reading or something and people are complaining, try taking notes, or ask yourself questions as you go along, or notice the taste and smell and sight of your food as you're eating lunch alone.

I get the feeling from your post that these people are annoying you by complaining or having discussions that are boring or silly to you. If that's the case, try to recognize that people have all kinds of conversations in public (and private) and you don't need to judge them for it or let it affect you.
posted by zutalors! at 1:22 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I find that I have trouble tuning out the same types of conversations (one should not need to make the same complaint, over and over and over, about Verizon customer service for an ENTIRE HOUR!) and that when I'm anxious in general or annoyed-that-I'm-being-annoyed, it's much worse.

So I try to keep my anxiety in check in general (for me, that means regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and limiting caffeine). And I try to notice the cycle of thoughts that keep me stuck in the annoyed-I'm-annoyed story that's going on in my brain in the moment, and detach myself from that story by laughing at myself a bit. "If this is the worst thing to happen to me today, I'm leading a charmed life," more or less.

I will, however, actually speak up if people are saying racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. things, just to remind them that we're in a public place and I'd prefer not to "hear about politics" while I'm trying to relax. It sometimes works, sometimes doesn't, but I think recognizing that I am willing to act if the chatter is offensive, rather than just annoying, helps a bit in let the annoying chatter go. (Mostly.)
posted by jaguar at 1:28 PM on February 18, 2015

Can you be more specific about how to practice and what I should be focusing on? Thanks

Focus on what you're reading/watching (or nothing if you're just there to sit.) The distractions will fade, eventually. It will not be easy to start doing this. It may help to bring a notebook or something where you keep track of what you're paying attention to (characters, baseball strikes and balls, etc.)
posted by michaelh at 1:50 PM on February 18, 2015

Have you considered getting custom ear plugs? They are very comfortable (even when chewing), come in a variety of attenuation levels, and will allow you to still hear the person you are talking to while reducing the overall sound level of the environment. I can't go to restaurants or bars without them.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:02 PM on February 18, 2015

The mantra that helps best (or least poorly) for me is something along the lines of:

"Not my circus, not my monkeys."

In other words, don't only try to focus on whatever you're doing, but also actively work on un-focussing on the other stuff.

It is difficult! I sympathise! Add a grating voice to the mix and you're soon ready to throw your French fries across the room. I know! And it doesn't become easier when you speak a lot of languages, believe me: I'm fluent in German, English, Dutch and Swedish, and the Stena Line crossings between Göteborg and Kiel are a PAIN (in spite of the occasional Danes...).

That said, do you know any other language well enough to read a book in that language? Great trick.
posted by Namlit at 2:12 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

You are not alone! I have the same issue and I can tell you, you're much more generous than I. My usual thought process is, "how can I get them to shut up and give me some $%&^ peace and quiet?!". It's definitely not a hearing issue; if anything, I think it's that my hearing is *too* good and that once I hear something annoying, I can't stop hearing it.

I try to do as jaguar suggests with mixed success; I haven't tried meditation yet but it is on my list. Depending on the situation I have also had good luck trying to make friends with the person or group; not intrusively, but if in a restaurant or bar, joining in the conversation briefly can make me see the people as human beings with their own lives who are not necessarily trying to make mine miserable :)
posted by stellaluna at 2:52 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is so juvenile I can't quite believe I'm admitting to it in public, but sometimes I give myself permission to spend a few moments hate-listening to the person who's annoying me, and then mentally do that thing where you close one eye to remove your depth perception and pretend you're squishing their head between your fingers. (Just mentally. Don't... don't actually mime squishing some stranger's head where other people can see you.) On a good day that lets me flip over from "rrrrrrrrrrrrgggggghhhhh" to "ha! squished your head! take that! *pbbbbbt*" so I can go back to my book.
posted by dorque at 3:03 PM on February 18, 2015 [9 favorites]

First of all, ignore anymore who thinks that you have a "medical issue." Like really? Being able to hear someone who is further away than the person sitting next to you...is a sign of medically poor hearing? Give me a break.

I sometimes have the issue you describe, OP. What helps me is remembering that I likely sound just as obnoxious to my neighbors. I may roll my eyes at nearby people talking about "how totally wasted man" they were last Friday night, but I bet those people within earshot of me and my friends are rolling their eyes at how obsessed my pals and I are with Harry Potter and asset pricing.

That, and I try to give others the benefit of the doubt. I tell myself, "I bet he/she doesn't mean to disturb me. He/she doesn't know she's talking so loudly."
posted by schroedingersgirl at 5:31 PM on February 18, 2015

Same issues, anxious personality, already a meditater. I had hearing checked by audiologist who said I have "trouble hearing in noise." Yes, that's the official term.

She made me custom fit "musician's earplugs." They are wonderful. They decrease noise evenly across the spectrum, so the world sounds fine, just quieter. ~$200, worth every penny.
posted by Jesse the K at 5:44 PM on February 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

This happens to me too, when I'm stressed. It sucks. Sometimes it is just me and my issues and sometimes it is the awful person who is making the noise. I'm not above going passive agressive and saying to my dining companion, "Hey, let's move, this guy is talking so loud I can barely think straight." It's kind of fun. Try it once or twice. They jump a bit. :)
posted by myselfasme at 7:24 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Here's what I do - doesn't work in the worst cases, but surprisingly often. I listen for a minute. Get the idea of the basic rhythm of how they talk (not what they are saying.) Like it's a foreign language or a piece of music. Then tune THAT out. It takes a low level of attention, but doing this I can read my book next to a blatherer way better than if I put headphones on.
posted by tomboko at 8:19 PM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oddly, yes, impaired hearing can result in being unable to direct you focus away from the loud person at a distance and towards the closer person you want to hear. It can be a processing thing (like trouble hearing in noise) or a sensitivity thing (you can loose sensitivity to some sounds without noticing a drop in speech understanding, especially in quiet). Hearing is complicated.

I'm mostly restating this not because I think it is definitely hearing (either processing or sensitivity), but because I've seen a lot of people brush off hearing problems because of the (understandable) misconceptions about how hearing works. If practice focusing and stress management doesn't help, or if it gets worse, it's just something to keep in mind.
posted by ghost phoneme at 7:48 AM on February 20, 2015

Again, I am not having problems hearing anything nor do I have issues discerning voices among noise. Headphones or earplugs are the standard answer to noises that bother you - but I don't want to use the standard ones that just block everything. This is an issue with the volume and topic of a nearby conversation.
posted by soelo at 8:04 AM on February 20, 2015

The custom ones Jesse the K mentioned can be really helpful for that (and tend to be more discreet depending on your ear). The attenuation they provide can be pretty mild, so it "takes the edge off" and still let's most people hear pretty well. I don't always find them comfortable for chewing, personally, but I get a lot of ear canal movement when I chew. If you do go the custom route, make sure you wear them a fair amount as soon as you get them. There's generally a remake period if the fit isn't quite right (which I didn't take advantage of).
posted by ghost phoneme at 8:21 AM on February 20, 2015

Hit post too soon: you can also get non-custom hi-fidelity plugs with lower attenuation levels than full ear plugs. If you haven't already tried those, they're cheaper than the custom, and might give you an idea if the attenuation levels would be sufficient without being too much. They look like Christmas trees, and most people find them more comfortable than the standard plugs, so you may find them OK for chewing (physically, you'll probably hear a lot of your chewing, custom ones can be better at that, but it's tricky).
posted by ghost phoneme at 8:32 AM on February 20, 2015

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