Are offices quieter than they used to be?

I was watching an episode of “Mad Men,” and I noticed that the background noise that they add to the office scenes is really loud. Then I thought of how much louder offices must have been in the typewriter era.

So my question is to Dopers who may have been around at that time: Were offices with typewriters horribly loud, and were they louder than they are today? Has anyone who has worked in a busy office in both eras noticed a difference?

Heck yeah, the difference is highly pronounced. The racket produced by typewriters, the old do matrix printers, telexes, ink printers on calculators and cash registers and even old style photocopiers was quite extraordinary. As with so many situations like this, the presence of noisy activity gives people permission for other noisy activity such as talking loud, since it is less disruptive and anyone working there will already have the ability to filter out noise. That’s exacerbated by the need to talk loud.

Most offices from the mid-90s onwards are like libraries. It’s not just the loss of noisy machinery. because there are now long periods of silence, people also talk quietly and walk quietly.


I returned to a job after taking a 7-year detour, and on my first day back noticed something was very different. It finally hit me–there were no phones ringing! We’re always busy and working hard, but it’s silent as a tomb a lot of the time because email doesn’t make noise.

This was between 1999 and 2007, and the change was dramatic.

I noticed the opposite – it’s noiser!

The decrease in mechanical office noise has been offset by the move from private rooms to ‘open’ office plans. When I started work in the 1970’s, I was always in a private room with a door, sometimes shared with 1 other person. Now it’s a ‘cubicle’ in a big, noisy bullpen with a whole bunch of people. ok for call centers, I guess, but much less conductive to getting thinking & serious programming done.

Perversely, I think the lack of noise these days is a bit of a problem. I notice that a lot of workplaces, particularly in hip or tech/coding sorts of places, are just one big long table with monitors side by side. As a result, the kids who work there are all wearing headphones, and are very reluctant to place actual telephone calls—even when that would be the much more efficient way to resolve a question or schedule a meeting.

As I recall it, the offices I worked in were noisier but a lot more fun and more social (but in a good way, not in a “mandatory Friday team-building potluck” way like they are now). At my first office job, phones were actually ringing instead of beeping, tweedling or playing sound clips; somebody was running off some mimeos or using the laminator; I was rattling out 80 wpm on an IBM Selectric II; and we had the radio tuned to the AM Top-40 station so we could play “Name That Tune.” It was a raucous, energetic, fun place to work.

I’m not sure how modern office workers stay awake all day.

My first office at a newspaper had carpet on the walls to absorb the noise from the manual typewriters. It stayed up after the switch to electric typewriters, and came down only after computers (and I) arrived. And yes, the phones rang like crazy.

Lucky you! A lot of the places I worked not only didn’t have carpet on the walls, they didn’t have carpet on the floor. And while most “executives” had an office, junior-level people were often stuck in a pool or bullpen where everyone had to work over the noise of everyone else.

The clickity clack of typewriters and other machines never bothered me. I’m going back to the workplace of the 60s.

The places I worked starting in the mid 80s had sound that was much more intrusive – mostly conversation that made it difficult to concentrate. I once had a cubicle back-to-back with a guy who talked to himself, sang (badly), hummed, and made random noises. He was not aware he was doing it until someone called his attention to it.

My most recent employment just before I retired a few months ago had an added irritation: music. Fortunately I also had an office with a door I could close to shut out both the radio and the jabbering. I was, and am, the oddball in that respect. I concentrate best in absolute silence like an old-time library. Everyone else seems to honestly believe that they work better with background noise.

So you’re the one! The person who actually went from having an office (with four walls going all the way to the ceiling and a locking door) to a cubicle. :wink:

Because every time the topic of cubicles comes up, and 90% or more of the commenters opine that they’re the worst thing evah, I recall that, before the cubicle, most office workers did not have an office but were in a “big noisy bullpen with a whole bunch of people” only without the cubicle half-walls to give a fig-leaf of noise control and privacy. :smack: For example, did anyone working for a newspaper who didn’t have “editor” in their title have an office?!

In short, the move for most people was not from private rooms to an open office, it was from a completely open office to a moderately open office with cubicles.

The sound of typewriters, electric staplers, copy machines, ringing phones, etc. used to provide a level of gray noise that made it easier to ignore stray conversations. But the internet connections sucked. I had to wait decades for my first web page to finish loading.