I've recently read a few interesting articles on the non-auditory factors involved in determining the degree of annoyance or disturbance we experience when we hear a sound...in other words, what turns ‘a sound’ into ‘a noise.’
One of these is the way we feel about the sound itself. After all, you can crank the volume for one of your favourite songs and though the decibel reading might not mean good things for your hearing down the road if you do it too often, the sound itself doesn't cause you any distress. In fact, you wouldn't even call it ‘noise,’ whereas someone who doesn't like that particular song might.
And then there’s the way we feel about the sound’s producer. For instance, while you can likely tune out your own dog, the vociferous outpourings of your neighbor’s canine companion might grate on your last nerve, especially if his timing isn't great. Another blogger puts it rather more poetically: “Few frustrations match the one that involves lying in bed, dead-eyed in the night, as the neighbor dog’s ten-billionth bark pierces the thin psychic veil between sanity and bloodlust.”
While these examples aren't too surprising, there’s much more to this story.
As Ken Hume discusses in Sleep disturbance due to noise: Current issues and future research (Noise Health 2010; 12:70-76), your level of disturbance can also be related to your economic relationship with the sound’s producer. He uses the example of people living near an airport, pointing out that while someone who works there might be affected by the sound of plane traffic, they're far more likely to accept and cope with it than their neighbor who doesn't rely on the airport to earn a living.
In fact, some hypothesize that our sensitivity to sounds might even be more generally related to our economic status. The theory goes that, as we become more affluent, our expectations regarding quality of life also rise, which in turn increases our sensitivity to noise and lowers our tolerance for these types of disruptions. Ironic, then, that the developments that increase wealth – including modern transportation methods – have also made our planet noisier than ever.
While there’s no escaping the impact of decibels and dynamic range, we definitely have to go beyond physical measurements to truly understand the affect sounds have on us, including the ones we experience in the workplace.