I've been having an increasingly hard time with noise levels at sf conventions and restaurants and such lately.
(Before I continue, I need to make absolutely clear that this post is not a criticism of anyone; I recognize that many people have different preferences than I do, and that's completely fine. This is a post about my reactions; it's not intend to tell anyone else how to behave.)
I've never liked noisy environments. I don't like to shout or to be shouted at, and my hearing has never been perfect. Sometimes at a certain volume level, even music can sort of dissolve into static for me.
I also have a visceral negative reaction to loud sounds and bright lights; at some gut level, they often feel like an attack to me. I start to hunch in on myself and tense up and withdraw. (I also sometimes feel that way about crowds of people.)
But a lot of my friends love loud background sound. And it often goes with the territory for socializing.
For example, at conventions, it's traditional for a lot of the professional writers and editors and agents and such to spend their free time hanging out in the hotel bar. And that's self-reinforcing: the more people hang out at the bar, the better a place the bar is to run into people you know. With the result that at any reasonably big convention, the hotel bar(s) tend to be packed full of people, and of course the more people who are there, the louder things get.
I've never liked this. I don't drink (and I have a difficult relationship with alcohol and with drunk people), but that's not the main issue for me in this context; the main issue is the noise.
And my hearing may be getting worse; it feels like it keeps getting harder for me to hold a conversation at a con without yelling “What?” over and over again. (I hate asking other people to repeat themselves, and I hate intentionally repeating myself.)
My difficulty with loud environments doesn't just get in my own way; it also makes it harder for me to participate in making social dynamics comfortable for other people. For example, at WorldCon in Chicago a couple years ago, I found myself at a largish circular table in the bar with a small group of people; I knew the ones sitting closest to me, but I didn't know the one who was sitting across from me. And she didn't get to participate in the conversation much, and I felt bad about that—I think she may've felt left out of the conversation, and I wanted to be more inclusive—but she was on the far side of the table in a loud bar, and I wasn't up to having a shouted introductory conversation across the table.
Of course it's not only conventions and it's not only bars. I attended a friend's birthday dinner in a restaurant a while back; the restaurant put us in a private room in the back, but they also included two other groups, at least one of which was EXTREMELY LOUD. I literally could not hear anything said by anyone at my table except for the person who was sitting directly across from me.
I've found workarounds for some of my other issues about socializing. For example, I've adopted the seven-person limit for convention meals that someone suggested a few years back; if the group gets to be bigger than seven people, then I can be pretty sure that I won't be able to hear or interact with at least some of them, and that's likely to significantly reduce my enjoyment of the social aspect of the meal, and so most of the time when the group gets too big I just leave it, and either find other people to eat with or go eat by myself. I have nothing against people who like big-group meals; it's my problem, so I resolve it.
But I haven't figured out a good answer to the noise problem. Once or twice, I've left group meals at conventions because the restaurant was too loud, but that's not a great solution. When my friends want to be in a noisy place, I have to choose between sitting with them in the bar or at a party (for example) while not being able to hear most of the conversation, or going elsewhere and not getting to interact with them at all. (Sometimes I suggest going somewhere quieter, and often people are fine with that; but many of my friends like the noise and like being in the place where everyone's going to show up sooner or later, so in those contexts I'm sometimes the only person who wants to leave.)
I worry sometimes, too, that this is only going to get worse over time. My grandfather didn't hear very well toward the end of his life, to the point that I think my grandmother thought he was losing some cognitive abilities; he tried to guess at what people were saying, and so his responses were sometimes non sequiturs. But my impression was that most of the time when people spoke loudly enough to him, he understood perfectly well. (But I wasn't around him all that often, so I could be wrong.) Anyway, point being, even aside from the hearing loss that people often have as they age, there may be some family history for me. I've been meaning to get my hearing checked for a while; I hope to do that soon.
(I recognize that there are plenty of deaf and hard-of-hearing people who have a much harder time with hearing conversations at conventions than I do. I don't intend this to be a “woe is me, I have this special problem that nobody else has ever experienced” kind of post; I'm just reporting on my own experience.)
So why am I telling you all this? Partly just to complain, because I find the whole thing frustrating and don't see a good solution. But partly as an explanation: I think I'm likely to try to avoid loud bars and loud restaurants and loud parties more and more as time goes on, which may mean it'll be harder to see me at conventions. If I decline dinner (or duck out after arriving at the restaurant), or if you don't see me at the bar in the evening, it may just be because I couldn't handle the noise levels. If you're a friend of mine and you want to hang out with me in a quieter setting, don't hesitate to text or call. And chances are good that I'll continue to occasionally stop by the loud places to say hi to people briefly.
(Much of this entry was originally written in August 2013, but I didn't get around to finishing and posting it 'til now.)
(See also Facebook comment thread for this post.)