Loud noise can be harmful. Eight hours of exposure to 80dB is likely to cause permanent damage to our hearing. REUTERS PIC

WHEN is the last time you heard the sound of silence? I’m not talking about the Simon and Garfunkel song. I’m talking about the absence of noise in our daily lives. We are surrounded by racket, clatter, clamour and commotion all day every day. It’s exhausting.

A friendly conversation among people in a closed room happens at an average of 60 to 64dB (decibel). The noise level in a Chinese restaurant is usually measured at about 79dB. That doesn’t seem too bad, until we realise that this means it is actually four times louder. Eight hours of exposure to 80dB is likely to cause permanent damage to our hearing. Heh, say what?

Feeling somewhat socially inclined yesterday, I decided to meet up with some friends for a drink and dinner in town. The rooftop terrace bar promised unrivalled views of the city. It didn’t disappoint. As soon as we had settled in our comfy lounge chairs and our drinks were served, we were ready to reminisce about our day, our work, our families. Nice prospect, except for the fact that I hardly heard anything that was said.

There’s a construction site right next door to the bar that shall remain unnamed, you see. Even if we were high up in the sky, the pounding, cutting and drilling from down below rendered any conversation impossible. The hope for a relaxing reunion got blown away over the city skyline, literally. Strike one clearly goes to the jackhammers.

Next stop, the Chinese restaurant down the street. Luckily the construction workers had called it a day by then. But my troubles weren’t over. As much as I enjoyed my selection of Nyonya- based delicacies, dinner proved to be anything but a relaxed affair. The chatter at the neighbouring table, the clatter of eating utensils and plates, the hearty laughs all around were clear testimony to the merry times being had by everybody. But I could tell that tinnitus was heading my way.

Strike two for the local eatery.

Let’s have a late night cuppa next door, someone suggested, or at least that’s what I think they said. I must have developed the ability to read lips, obviously. The idea was a good one, the experience on the other hand not so much. There was nothing wrong with the coffee, nor with the company. However, the noise level suddenly rose to an untenable 110dB. That’s 32 times louder than the healthy surround sound of a conversation and marks the average human pain threshold.

A police car had stopped on the curb and started blaring its siren. Did something happen? Did someone get hurt? No, some unknown and inconsiderate drivers had opted for the very careless habit of double parking on the street in front of our chosen venue. As good old clamping erroneous parkers is out of favour with local law enforcement these days, the said patrol car opted for prolonged and ear-splitting siren squealing instead. Strike three.

I left for the little heaven of tranquillity that I call home. I was exhausted. As soon as the ringing in my ears subsides, in a day or two, I’ll call my friends and ask them how they are doing, how their day went, how their families fare. Or better yet, I’ll contact them on social media. I’ll be able to read my friends’ stories instead of their lips for a change.

Maybe I’m getting old, but I do look forward to a day spent in a forest, or a park, or a hilltop. Surrounded by the sound of nothing, the sound of silence. How wonderfully relaxing this will be.


The writer is a long-term expatriate, a restless traveller, an observer of the human condition and unapologetically insubordinate.

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