Not all loud situations can be solved with a mute button. Real Simple’s etiquette expert has suggestions for navigating other people’s noise with grace.

By Catherine Newman
Updated August 23, 2017
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Jamie Chung

Everyday noises set me off. I can’t stand to be around people who click their pens or crack their knuckles. Don’t even get me started on loud chewers or constant sniffers. I always want to ask them to stop, but because other people aren’t bothered, I feel like I’m the weird one. Is it unfair to ask this?

Misophonia—meaning “hatred of sound”—is a condition in which certain noises trigger extreme agitation. It’s not an officially recognized diagnosis, and it’s a fairly new field of research, but just knowing you’re not “weird” or alone might help. Your fellow sufferers have generated lots of coping strategies. Always carrying headphones is one. Music, podcasts, or white noise can provide respite. But you’ll need a different plan for social situations and work meetings. A friend of mine who suffers around eating noises puts on music during dinner and sits by the speaker—and I much prefer this solution to not enjoying his company at all. Which raises a different point: How you handle incidents will depend on the nature of your relationships. You don’t want to tell a client that the clicking of his pen makes you fantasize about snatching it and shoving it in your ear, but you could say to a close friend, “I’m so sorry. You know how undone I am by tiny sounds! Can I get you a rubber ball to squeeze? The pen clicking is kind of killing me.”

I work in an office with an open floor plan, so I often hear what my coworkers are doing. Most of it is just background noise now, but one coworker talks on the phone constantly. He calls his wife in the middle of the day and talks with clients when he could email them. Sometimes his calls are conducted in his second language (nothing to do with our business), which gets very distracting. What can I say to make him put the phone down?

I often do my writing work in a café because I find the ambient noise pleasantly focusing. But there’s another patron who often sits next to me and jiggles his leg up and down, which makes his stool rock on the floor, which distracts and irritates me. But I am at a public place that I could choose to leave. You are at work, where you have to be. I would take one of two approaches. The first: Speak directly with your coworker. Say, “I’m so sorry to be a pain, but my attention span seems to be shrinking, and I find myself super distracted by your conversations. Would you be willing to take your personal calls outside?” The second: Talk to a manager. Without naming names, explain that you’re distracted by an abundance of personal calls and ask if there’s a policy that could be articulated more forcefully. While you’re at it, you might check whether there’s a quieter part of the office you could move to or whether your employer might be willing to invest in a pair of noise-canceling headphones. Short of that, there are always earplugs, which you can try wearing conspicuously, poking right out of your head, to offer visual representation of your plight.

I plan to throw a party in my backyard that could get loud, between the 30 relatives and friends, the kids in the pool, and the music from our speakers. What’s the best way to keep the peace in the neighborhood? Do I have to invite my neighbors as a courtesy, or can I just give them a warning about the party?

Considerate neighbors are a treasure, and you are one—your potentially cacophonous party notwithstanding. You care, and that matters. Sure, it would be extra neighborly to extend an invitation, but it’s not necessary. Giving a heads-up is thoughtful enough. Do this in person. Be solicitous (“I want to apologize in advance!”) and appreciative (“Thank you so much for understanding!”). If you can, offer a back-end limit. Then, when they hear “Marco! Polo!” and a thumping bass, your neighbors will remember that you cared enough to warn them. They’ll be more likely to extend you the benefit of the doubt than to seethe (or call the police).

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I was in a restaurant, and a woman at the next table was playing Candy Crush on her phone. I politely told her that the noise from the game was really loud and asked if she could turn it down. She did turn it down but retaliated by telling my companion and me that our conversation was too loud and was annoying her. Should I have done anything differently?

It’s totally unacceptable to play a loud video game in a restaurant. After all, earbuds exist for just such occasions! Not including the occasion of a face-to-face conversation, which they can’t help with. It’s fine that you said something, and it’s good that you were polite about it. The Candy Crusher was petty and aggrieved afterward? So be it. Maybe she was embarrassed about her behavior, or maybe she’s a jerk. Regardless, there was nothing to do but pipe down a notch and let it go.

My neighbor’s dog barks constantly. He barks at the wind. He barks at my kids when they’re in our backyard. He can even see when I’m in my kitchen, and he barks at me through the window. It’s not only loud but also frightening. How do you recommend I confront my neighbor?

Oof. You are in the belly of the beast, ­problem-wise. Start in good faith by approaching your neighbor in a peaceable, brainstorming mode. After all, this is not a leaf blower we’re talking about (though it blows). It’s a pet he doubtless loves. “Can we please problem-solve about your dog’s barking? We’re kind of at our wit’s end, and I’m sure it’s driving you crazy, too.” Maybe you will even burst into tears during this conversation because you are so tired from being up all night fantasizing about duct-taping the dog’s muzzle, and maybe that won’t be the worst thing. Come ready to offer ideas: getting the dog professionally trained, keeping the dog away from the windows, chipping in on a fence or some shrubs to separate your properties, crating the dog at night. Then try to get your neighbor to articulate a next step so your concern won’t just evaporate into the din. If the owner is unresponsive or hostile, though, you may have to pursue an escalated course of action—the kind that doesn’t maintain neighborliness so well—such as looking into municipal laws. Just be mindful about what you set in motion. If you like your neighbor and he’s forced to give up his pet, the conscience-stabbing silence may prove worse than the barking.