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The best ways to cope with a noisy office

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Giving noise-reduction strategies a fair hearing

I’m an indiscriminate eavesdropper. If there’s a conversation near me, I listen — on the train, in restaurants, on the sidewalk, and especially at work. But in our open-plan office, there are a lot of conversations to overhear. And I’m supposed to be working.

"People are aging their ears much faster."

Since I definitely don’t have the self control to just ignore my colleagues, I’ve been trying to drown them out — and every option seems like it has a downside. Sound-canceling headphones are appealing, but also expensive. I’ve used earplugs in the past, but it’s weird having to pry a neon-colored, earwax-covered piece of foam out of my ear every time someone talks to me.

Whatever noise-dampening option I wind up sticking with, I want to be sure that it won't do more harm than good. Hearing loss typically occurs as people age — about half of people over 65 have some typing of it, and it's irreversible. But more than 1.1 billion young adults are also at risk, according to the World Health Organization, from turning up the volume on their smartphones and other devices. About half of people ages 12 to 35 in middle-to-high income countries are exposing themselves to unsafe levels of noise on their devices.

"People are aging their ears much faster," says Tony Ricci, a neuroscientist at Stanford University.

Before I explore my options, here's a quick-and-dirty overview of the auditory system. Think of your auditory system as a kind of Rube Goldberg machine. It starts with the outer ear, or pinna, which is basically a reverse megaphone; it catches sound waves and funnels them into the ear canal. Those sound waves then vibrate a membrane called the eardrum, which, in turn, creates tremors in three little bones in the middle ear. Those bones beat out a rhythm on the fluid-filled inner ear. Inside the inner ear are the "hair cells" that detect sound waves and transform them into signals our brains can understand. The signal shoots along auditory nerves to the brain, and that’s when the system is complete: you’ve heard a sound.

Permanent hearing loss occurs when the hair cells are damaged

Permanent hearing loss occurs when the hair cells are damaged, and in mammals, including humans, those cells are easily damaged by loud noises — like a concert or a shotgun blast. But in mice, at least, the hair cells (and the auditory nerves they connect to) can also be harmed by long-term exposure to quieter noise. However the damage occurs, people start noticing it when they can’t hear their friends in restaurants or at parties where there’s a lot of background noise.

I want to avoid this, so I quizzed some experts about how best to solve my eavesdropping problem. My solution so far has been blasting white noise through my Apple EarPods. It works great. But I wanted to know what this daily onslaught of sound was doing to my delicate auditory system and what the best solution was to tune out conversations. Here, ranked from worst to best, is what I’ve figured out.

normals earbuds

Blasting noise and music through earbuds is a bad idea

Yeah, my preferred system is the worst. That’s because playing white noise (which is noise that hits all frequencies), or any variation thereof — like brown noise, or pink noise — to drown out office conversations just adds volume to an already noisy environment.

"There’s a direct relationship between the loudness of the sound, and the duration of that sound needed to cause damage," Ricci says. So if you spend your whole day at work wearing headphones to drown out the conversations springing up around you, you'd better turn that volume down, Ricci says.

And while music shares the same problem, white noise is so nondescript that it can be "deceptively quiet," says Stanford neuroscientist and head and neck surgeon John Oghalai. That means people like me can play it really loudly without realizing it.

"It’s masking it in a way — it’s dominating," Oghalai says. "It’s like trying to talk to my wife and my baby’s crying. I’m hearing the baby, not my wife." The white noise, in this metaphor, is the baby.

"I would probably suggest changing approaches," Ricci says.

Use on-ear headphones instead

But the real issue is volume and duration

So the EarPods are loose-fitting, which just adds to the problem. Because background noise can still slip around the edges, I tend to crank up the volume even more. Playing white noise with over-ear headphones would be better — both because they isolate my ears, and because they keep pressure from building up inside the ear canal. Even snug earbuds would be an improvement, Oghalai says, because they reduce ambient noise — which means you don’t need to turn them up as loudly. But Ricci is concerned that blocking off the ear might lead to an increase in pressure that amplifies the sound waves in the ear canal.

The real issue is volume and duration: "Headphones with low volume music are also not going to be too damaging," Ricci says.

What would be best is playing music farther from my ears, through speakers. That’s impractical, of course, in an open-plan office. "It probably becomes a socially awkward conversation to figure out how to make that work," says Ricci. "Monday is country western day, and Tuesday is classical music day…"

Noise-canceling headphones are even better

Noise-canceling headphones don’t add noise inside the ear — instead, they cancel it out. These headphones use a little microphone embedded in the earpiece to detect ambient noise. In response to the environmental sounds they detect, they emit a sound wave that essentially waves in the opposite direction, neutralizing the noise rather than masking it. That works especially well for constant, low frequency noise, like the roar on airplanes.

"It has to be kind of constant noise."My problem, of course, isn’t an airplane. It’s my co-workers’ voices. And sound-canceling headphones don’t work as well for that — the higher-frequency noise of people talking is not what they’re engineered for. "It has to be kind of constant noise — so somebody talking, it doesn’t block them that much," says Oghalai. "But it’s really good for engine noise."

So while sound-canceling headphones are probably better for my hearing than white noise or on-ear headphones, they fall into the same category as listening to music on speakers: not exactly ideal for the situation I’m in.

Earplugs are the best

The best bet is probably the most low-tech: earplugs. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s the foam ones you squish into your ear canal or the on-ear headphones that block out sound, says Oghalai. You can even use both together, in really noisy industrial environments.

There’s a reason for that: they’re not covering noise, and they aren’t dominating it either. Instead, they’re functioning as a barrier that prevents sound waves from setting off my Rube Goldberg machine in the first place.

"They reduce the pressure of the sound waves, so whatever reaches your ear is quieter than it would have been," says Oghalai. But the squishable in-ear ones take a bit of getting used to. Also, the earwax.

"Do you want to basically be isolated from people?"

"Do you want to basically be isolated from people?" Ricci says. "You don’t get to pick what you hear, and you don’t hear." Ricci says. They're good for safety, but I'm not alone in disliking earplugs. "I don’t like earplugs," Ricci says. "I feel like they make my ears sweat."

Of course, as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make her drink. After I conducted these interviews, I still needed to write this article, and it was still loud in the office — so I fell back on an old, bad habit: white noise. I did, however, play it a little more quietly. But that’s not a long-term solution. At this point, I’m looking into earplugs — which are, fortunately, quite cheap. But really I’m not just buying earplugs, I’m buying peace of mind. And — just maybe — a few more years of hearing my friends at loud restaurants.