Noise Is Overrunning Us

by Ron Potter

We recently remembered the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

I was in New York City working with a client on 9/10.  Trying to get home that evening from La Guardia, we left the gate three times only to return each time for various reasons.  On the last return to the gate, the pilot came over the speaker and said that anyone who wanted to get off the plane was welcome to but he was going to try to take off one more time.  If I stayed on the plane and this take off didn’t work, I was unlikely to find a hotel room anywhere.  I would have to spend the night in the terminal.  If I stuck with it and the plane was able to take off, great.  It would be late but I would get home.

We finally did take off and I arrived home about 1:30 am on 9/11.  After a few hours of sleep, I awoke and watched the events of that horrible day on my TV.  But I was home.

For the next several days there was not a plane in the sky.  There was no noise from the jets flying overhead.  It was a bit unnerving.  I realized that we had become so accustomed to the noise of jets flying overhead that we just didn’t hear it anymore.  Until it stopped!

That was 20 years ago.  The noise in our lives has gone much beyond jets flying overhead.

Noise has Increased

The sound of jets in the sky has returned (although diminished during Covid).  And once again we barely hear it anymore.  But it’s a little frightening to me how much other noises have increased in our lives.

One that I find particularly annoying (although it may simply be my age) is the sound in restaurants.  When I go to dinner with someone I enjoy the conversation as much as the food.  However, as the noise levels of talking and laughing increase, for some reason the restaurant feels compelled to turn up the background music.  If you look around, no one is listening to the music, they’re trying to talk.  But because of the sound, they need to talk louder.  It’s a vicious cycle and renders quiet conversations impossible.  I’ve given up.

Invisible Noise

The noise that I’m worried about even more is technically not noise at all.  It’s the constant distraction and overwhelming presence of email, texts, and social media, etc.  Even in open-air restaurants where a conversation is possible, I see couples and families all setting together, all on their own devices.  This “noise” has diminished human contact.

I’m Not A Luddite

I’m not opposed to technology.  In fact, I purchased my first Blackberry in early 2000, just months after it had been introduced in late 1999.  Back then I even had to search for a nationwide network for the Blackberry to run on because the phone companies had not discovered that it could be a great revenue stream for their own networks.

Overworked and Increased Stress

It was soon after that I began to hear from clients and colleagues about how overworked they were and the increase of stress in their lives.  I tried to observe what was causing this feeling of being overworked and I really couldn’t see that people were working more than they always had.

What I did observe however was that they got no relief from their workload.

Prior to the availability of smartphones, people would close up shop at the end of the day (even long days), and head home for time with the family, rest, and relaxation.  That wasn’t happening anymore.  They felt they were suddenly on call twenty-four hours per day.

It’s not that they were working harder, it’s just that it never shut off.  If they received an email from their boss late in the evening, they felt it was important (maybe even required) to respond as-soon-as-possible.  This pattern interrupted their time of rest and recuperation, got them thinking and responding, and turning their work brain back on with no opportunity to recover.  This “noise” of being in contact 24/7 has overrun and disrupted our lives.

The Boss is Often Not Aware

One leader I was working with had a reputation of being a demanding tyrant.  I was surprised to find a very pleasant and caring person when I met her.  As I began to ask those who had labeled her a tyrant about the behavior that caused that reputation, they began to talk about her 24/7 demands through email and texts.  In their opinion, it never let up and was destroying their health and family life.

When I asked her about the behavior, her first response was that she had tried to make it clear that she wasn’t expecting an immediate response.  However, if you’re a direct report, it’s always hard not to respond to your boss.

I encouraged her to write her thoughts as an email draft whenever she wanted to but not to hit send until either late Sunday night or early Monday morning.  She was very happy to do that.

Within a week her direct reports asked what I had done because their stress levels had gone down and they didn’t feel obligated to think about work all weekend.  Simple things can make big differences.

Take Control of your Life

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about not allowing technology to take over our lives.  It requires personal discipline.

When you go on vacation but dedicate late night or early morning to “getting your work done” you completely override your body and mind’s need for rest and to just be unplugged.  Let your boss and colleagues know that you’re going on vacation and will be unplugged for a while.  For the most part, they’ll understand.

When you get back to work, delete those emails that have filled your inbox while you were gone.  The really important ones will resurface.

Take control.  You’re not a victim unless you choose to be.  You’ll be a stronger, healthier, happier person in the end.

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