Dining out can be a loud and stressful experience. Today’s popular restaurant décor includes hard woods, mirrors and metal, all surfaces that reflect noise rather than absorb it. A lack of carpeting and other sound absorbing surfaces creates a cacophony of sound reverberating around the space. Background music combined with the clacking of cutlery on plates and other patrons’ conversations add to the overwhelming din. Hearing the waiter recite the specials, let alone enjoying quiet conversation with your dinner companions becomes almost impossible. This is true for everyone. Imagine the challenge if you have hearing loss.
Because of the noise, many people with hearing loss avoid restaurants, but with upfront planning, self-advocacy, and a willingness to experiment with new technologies, positive experiences are possible.
Follow these tips to make your next dinner out a success.
1. Do your research. Quiet restaurants may be few and far between, but they do exist. Read restaurant reviews online; many now feature loudness ratings. Ask friends for recommendations or consult free crowdsourcing apps like Soundprint or iHEARu, which group restaurants in your area by ease of conversation.
2. Provide information early. When you make your reservation, mention that you wear hearing aids and request a quiet table. When the restaurant calls to confirm, reiterate your request. This increases the likelihood that they can meet your needs versus walking in cold. When you arrive at the restaurant, remind the hostess once again. If the first table you are given does not suffice, request to be moved. Polite persistence can be very effective.
3. Request a table in the corner. A corner table or other location beside a wall is often quieter because there is a barrier between you and the rest of the restaurant noise. Sitting with your back to the wall will help limit distracting noise from behind you. For people with certain types of hearing aids, a corner table still works well, but sitting facing the wall is better. Experiment and see which works for you.
4. Ask for a round table. A round table makes group conversation easier. People are more likely to face forward as they speak projecting their voice towards the center of the table and keeping their faces visible for speech reading.
5. Search for sound absorbing décor. Look for old school restaurant design features like carpet, drapes, cushioned seats, cloth tablecloths and acoustic tiles. Many restaurants today prefer hard surfaces like wood and glass. Preview the décor online or stop in to see it for yourself before making a reservation.
6. Advocate for what you need. Ask the manager to turn down the music or move you to a quieter table. Request the specials in writing rather than verbally from the waiter. Hearing loss is an invisible condition so others won’t know that you need help unless you ask for it. If a restaurant is not open to meeting your needs, vote with your dollars and do not return.
7. Avoid busy times. Restaurants are quieter at off hours and the management may be more amenable to requests to turn down the music. Eat early or late, or try dining outside if the weather permits. Outdoor spaces often have fewer hard surfaces to reflect sound and more organic material to absorb it.
8. Limit group size. It is fun to eat out in large groups, but this makes conversation more difficult in a noisy environment. Limit groups to 4 or 6 people if possible. If a larger group is required, focus on conversing with the people next to you and across from you. Discussions over long distances are unlikely to work well.
9. Manage the seating arrangement. Position yourself towards the center of a large group and with the people that are more difficult for you to hear directly across from you so that you can read their lips. In a group of four, I like to have the person hardest for me to hear diagonally across from me. That way if they turn to speak to the person next to them, their voice is still heading in my general direction. Don’t be shy about asking for a different seat if needed.
10. Experiment with technology fixes. Ask your audiologist to create a restaurant program for your hearing aids that will block out background sounds and focus in on voices or try an assistive listening device. Many such devices exist, and with the advent of OTC hearing aids, many more are likely to be on the market soon. Speech-to-text apps work well and can be used discreetly right on your phone. Remote microphones where your dining companions wear microphones that connect directly to your hearing aids also work well if everyone participates.
Don’t let your hearing loss keep you from enjoying the latest new restaurant or a special night out with friends or family. Preparation, creativity, and self-advocacy are the keys to success.