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The Sound of Silence

Noise apps like Noisli and Soundsnap can bring the background sounds of a busy coffee shop, restaurant, or Paris cafe to wherever you’re sheltering in place

silhouetted people in a coffee shop against a window. Getty Images

I’m struggling with the quiet. It’s week seven of social isolation, and of all the strange new aspects of coronavirus life — working from home, compulsively washing my hands, wearing a mask in public — it’s the silence I can’t get used to.

I’m a food writer, and before COVID-19 I probably found myself out at a restaurant, bar, or coffee shop four to seven times a week. Now, like the rest of the world, I’m stuck to eating at home. I miss a lot about my old routine, but possibly more than any food or drink, it’s the sounds of public life I miss the most.

March 15 was the last time I heard them. It was a pre-birthday celebration at Jackrabbit Filly, a new Chinese-American restaurant in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. My boyfriend and I sat at the bar and shared mapo tofu verde, hot karaage, and pork dumplings. We chatted with the owners, said hi to a friend, and consulted with the bartender on cocktails. At the time, I didn’t give much significance to these interactions until suddenly the world went silent because of the pandemic.

Our brains crave the familiar. For many, food and drink establishments — along with their sounds — are a regular part of everyday life, and usually a pleasurable one. Like Pavlov’s dog and the bell, just the sound of dining can trigger positive emotions in restaurant regulars. Similarly, the very absence of those sounds can trigger the opposite.

Luckily, on week three of struggling in the silence in my office, I made a discovery: Among the various ambient sounds like “white noise” and “rain” and “fan,” my phone’s noise app, Noisli, also has a “coffee shop” setting. I usually use Noisli for sleep, so though I’d noticed it before, I always thought it a little strange to doze off to the sounds of milk foamers and bean grinders. But that day, while trying to get work done in the grips of deafening silence, I hit play. Almost instantly, the familiar sounds of a voice announcing orders, fragments of conversations, and the cadence of servers made me feel a little better — comforted, dare I say almost normal.

Apparently I’m not alone in my response, because a number of services like Noisli, A Soft Murmur, and Soundsnap have latched on to the idea that consumers might crave the soft din of a coffee shop, bar, or restaurant as much as they do their menus. Once the mp4 begins to play, the listener is surrounded by pre-COVID-19 interactions — another world where we were all a little less stressed and could order dinner without gloves and a mask.

But the particulars of an audio backdrop varies from place to place. Like a sonic fingerprint, the specific tenor of laughter, the tone of glasses clinking, shuffling waitstaff, and the low clamor of customers ordering are unique to each establishment. To satisfy the need for audio diversity — not to mention our wanderlust — apps like Soundsnap also offer a varied range of recorded experiences, including international getaways like an outdoor restaurant in Amsterdam, with soft murmuring in Dutch, a crowded sushi spot in Tokyo with the sound of stacking plates, or lunchtime in Brazil with a breezy waiter speaking Portuguese. Close your eyes and it almost feels like you’re on a vacation — heavy on the “almost.”

My brain is prone to anxiety, so for me, the low tones of people going about their lives is about more than background noise. It’s therapeutic, and helps distract me from the jittery thoughts and focus on the task at hand. It’s why I’ve always done my best work in coffee shops, and why now you’ll find me more often than not hunkered over my computer with ear-buds blasting the banal muffled sounds of everyday eating — because in a time with so much uncertainty, every shred of normalcy counts.