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Normal or nuisance? Negotiations about acceptable levels of neighbourhood noise are never-ending

Published on 5.11.2020
Tampere Universities
Photo: Jonne Renvall, Tampereen yliopisto
When living in a block of flats, we share our space with our neighbours – including the sounds of our daily life. In the context of urban living, the boundaries between private and shared spaces are constantly shifting and what constitutes “normal” remains a subject of debate.

“Dear neighbours, we will be hosting a house-warming party in our flat next Saturday, so there may be additional noise from music and guests. We apologise in advance for any inconvenience. The event is starting around 6 pm and will finish no later than 11 pm.”

Flat-dwellers are used to seeing notes like this displayed on the notice board in the entrance lobby. When the Covid-19 outbreak confined us in our homes, many of us started seeing and hearing more of our neighbours than we are used to. Lockdown living has put neighbourly relations to the test, and housing co-ops and property managers have reported a rise in noise complaints.

Are people living in Finland particularly sensitive to unwanted noise?

Meri Kytö, docent in auditory culture and visiting researcher at Tampere University, prefers to talk about the expectations we have for the soundscape of our living environment.

“The proportion of one-person households is quite high in Finland. Average household size has continuously declined since the 1970s, and now more than 40% of all our households are one-person households. This reveals a great deal about the auditory environment that we live in.”

Climate plays a part, too.

“Because of our cold Nordic winters, houses must be well insulated, and multi-glazed windows not only keep cold air out but also block out sounds. This means we are used to soundproofed living spaces,” Kytö adds.

Urbanisation began relatively late in Finland, so only a few generations have been living in blocks of flats and learning to share their auditory space.

Conflicts between public and private spheres

We do not, of course, want our neighbours to hear everything we do, nor do want to hear all the sounds they are making. Drawing a line between personal and public sound spaces is complicated because of underlying cultural values and the differences between our personal circumstances and experiences.

Sounds are intricately linked to our perceptions of privacy and intimacy.

“If we overhear neighbours arguing, we become spectators to their personal lives whether we like it or not. We may feel a moral obligation to intervene. When the outside encroaches and our neighbours’ business becomes our own, the thoughts and choices we have depend on our personality, the situation and our relationship with our neighbours,” Kytö describes.

The sounds we hear through the walls can elicit an array of conflicting thoughts and emotions.Photo: Jonne Renvall, Tampereen yliopisto

If we observe the urban etiquette of polite aloofness and have little contact with our neighbours, it can be difficult to decide how to deal with noise nuisance. 

“If we know nothing about our neighbours, sounds are difficult to interpret when we are hearing them through a wall. We are left guessing, and this uncertainty can make us feel anxious. Especially if the noises sound aggressive or annoying, the person next door may be feeling quite a whirlwind of emotions,” Kytö points out.

Cultural values and emotions influence our reaction to noise. For example, as nerve-racking as the sound of a baby crying next door can be, we have to remain rational and remind ourselves that babies cry to communicate their needs or distress, not to purposely annoy.

“Knowing that we are expected to respond with empathy, it can be a conflict between reason and emotion. However, a person who is kept awake by a neighbour’s crying baby may not be able to engage in this type of rational internal dialogue,” Kytö notes. 

When talking about ambient sounds, what constitutes “normal”? Some domestic noise is unavoidable in a block of flats, but what is considered a normal daytime schedule and an acceptable level of noise differs from person to person.

“What is considered normal by one person can be unbearable for someone else.”

Sounds that make the hearer uncomfortable, such as toilet noises or neighbours having sex, are a different story. Bringing up these noise complaints takes quite a bit of nerve – or a specific type of neighbourly relations.

More communal responsibility

Professor of Urban Sociology Matti Kortteinen discusses the concept of negative solidarity in his book Lähiö (Suburb). “Mind your own business, and I will do the same” used to be the prevailing mentality among suburban dwellers. Intruding into someone’s private space was frowned upon. 

Now there is more variety in personal preferences and attitudes. The Covid-19 pandemic has also increased positive solidarity, with people helping and looking out for their neighbours. 

Kytö is hoping to see a similar shift take place in our attitude towards our sonic environment. People could take more responsibility and show consideration for others, and thereby create a more pleasant living environment for all.

“In Finland, we tend to have a one-size-fits-all approach to rules and regulations, which is not always ideal. Instead of consulting a lawyer or contacting the police, we could encourage communities to negotiate their own set of ground rules.”

Modern technology offers us virtually unlimited possibilities for designing our sonic space.Photo: Jonne Renvall, Tampereen yliopisto

This kind of communal negotiation is more common, for example, in Turkey, where soundscapes are assessed from a community perspective. Different communities can have different ideas about an acceptable sound environment.

In Turkey, people are aware of urban policies and the soundscapes they can expect to encounter in different neighbourhoods.

“In Finland people are very careful about linking neighbourhood noise problems with class or socioeconomic issues, whereas in Turkey the definition of a normal level of noise strongly depends on the neighbourhood,” Kytö says.

Range of survival strategies and solutions for addressing noise problems

If broader negotiation about ground rules sounds too much, there are small steps we can take to build rapport with our neighbours and prevent noise issues from escalating, such as pinning a little note to the lobby to notify our neighbours of an upcoming party.

“By giving neighbours a heads-up before hosting a noisy party, it gives them the chance to prepare in advance. It helps a great deal to know when disturbing noise will quiet down,” Kytö says. 

It also helps if people make at least some effort to connect with their neighbours.

“Of course, this does not end noise problems or make them less irritating. However, knowing one’s neighbours can reduce the uncertainty associated with sounds coming from next door and make it easier to address our concerns.”   

If possible, noise complaints should be brought up when the noise is not happening. Instead of banging on your neighbour’s door to confront them, it is best to approach them calmly and then politely describe how the situation is affecting you.

It is high time we stop seeing everyday sounds as pollution that we must combat.

We have a broad range of technological alternatives for controlling what we hear. Among other things, noise cancelling headphones, TV, Netflix, YouTube and audio equipment offer us virtually unlimited possibilities for designing our sonic space, so it meets our needs.

“Public discussion about sounds coming from neighbours tends to have a negative undertone. Still, domestic sounds can also create a cosy atmosphere and increase our sense of belonging to a place,” Kytö says.

It is high time we stop seeing everyday sounds as pollution that we must combat, according to Kytö.

“People going about their lives generates sounds, but tolerance goes a long way.”

Author: Sari Laapotti