I am suffering from a medical condition called hyperacusis, which makes normal levels of noise painful (and potentially damaging) for me. I have found ways to cope with this condition in my daily life, mostly by avoiding noisy situations and events, but sometimes even people's voices can be very painful, in particular if I am having a long conversation with someone in a small room or office, which my occupation frequently requires, and if my interlocutor has a high-pitched voice and comes from a culture where speaking loudly and confidently is encouraged.

I tried explaining my problem explicitly, and insisting that the problem is on my side and that I am not blaming the other person, but I noticed two types of undesired reactions to my request. First, some people seem to get offended by my explanation, which insinuates that the volume of their voice might be inappropriate. Second, some people do not take my request very seriously and seem to think that I am exaggerating, or that my problems are psychological (I am speculating here, this is just my impression). Anyway, this initial exchange does not put the conversation on the right track. Oftentimes, even when people make an effort initially, they quickly (and naturally) go back to their habits, and I find it very difficult and embarrassing to give them constant reminders.

I tried other strategies (lowering my own voice in the hope that my interlocutor will unconsciously imitate me, pretending that we need to speak softly to avoid bothering my colleagues in other offices), with very limited success.

How can I politely ask people to tone down without offending them, and without sounding too weird?

Edit

Many thanks to all for the answers and comments. I would like to clarify two things:

  • I don't need to bring the topic with all my interlocutors. I would say that only 20% of them speak at a volume which is painful/dangerous for me. Of course, I don't mention to these people that they are "special", but I still have the impression that my request offends a large fraction of them, perhaps because they have already received some comments about their voice from other people.

  • the specialists told me to avoid using earplugs when I speak (as they amplify your voice, which can even damage the inner ear in the long term due to bone conduction). And I think that plugging them and removing them frequently when I or my interlocutor starts to speak is not exactly helping me on the "akwardness" scale :)

  • Are you able to put cotton balls or something in your ears to lessen the amount of vibrations from sound waves that hit your ear drums or whatever? I know this isn't an answer for how to ask politely for people to speak softer or more quietly but I'm surprised there is not a medical device or a hack or something you can use to resolve this problem. Have you spoke with your doctor about it to see if you can be proactive with a device? A quick google search shows this for example: hyperacusisresearch.org/hyperacusis-device – Facebook Jan 10 at 2:15
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    I've never heard of that condition but I'm a solution specialist and it seems sensible that a more permanent solution would be to have some in-ear device or something to block the sound wave vibrations, etc. until a more permanent treatment is available to you if ever or if something even exists. I'm not trying to give you an answer and just wanted to comment to ask about that but I will come back and remove these comments to keep down on the clutter once you respond back. Good luck regardless. What offends some people may not others, etc. so sounds like a battle that'll never be won. – Facebook Jan 10 at 2:18
  • You mention 'explaining your problem explicitly' --> Which makes me feel this is the first time you encounter someone and explain it to them immediately? But you also mention 'constant reminders', and this seems to be more in line with 'asking people to tone down'. Could you explain to me whether this is about having that initial conversation explaining your condition and asking people to be mindful of it? Or is your question more about reminding the people that already know that they are making too much noise and should tone down? On which part should I focus an answer? – Tinkeringbell Jan 10 at 9:32
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    @Tinkeringbell Thank you. I should have been more precise. The typical situation I have in mind is an encounter with someone I don't know, followed by a 1 or 2-hour conversation in a small office. And I am interested both in advice regarding my intiial explanation when we start the conversation, and regarding how to react in the course of the conversation when I notice that my interlocutor went back to speaking at a higher (and painful) noise level. – Oliv Jan 10 at 12:28
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    I don't find my voice is all that amplified by the orange foam ones, but, then again, I don't have a condition that makes me sensitive to it, so maybe it's more a matter of me not noticing. I kind of figured that you probably used the latter description, but was hoping people wouldn't be so self-centered and quick to take offense as to be put off by that. If you find some sort of resolution that is successful, I hope you come back and do an update edit to share both for others who may have the problem, and for us, who are frustrated by not having a solution for you. – PoloHoleSet Jan 11 at 15:39
up vote 8 down vote accepted

Perhaps you could try a big sign in some bright color like yellow or red so that it gets noticed (like a street sign) that says in big bold letters:

Shhh, Speak softly."

Then underneath in smaller text

This occupant suffers from hyperacusis which causes even normal volume sound to be painful to her/him.

Having a big noticeable sign should remind people to be quiet without you having to say anything. Having a written request/warning posted at the entry also seems more official which hopefully helps those who may think you're exaggerating to realize that this is a condition which should be taken seriously.

Naming the condition helps legitimize it, and explaining the basic effect of the condition on you as an individual should elicit sympathy.

I suspect that this will help but that a good sized portion of people will still talk louder than is comfortable for you. The core problem is that they don't have any feedback about what a good volume is. And even if you show them by example they literally have a life long habit of talking at a given decibel level.

You may want to consider getting a decibel meter with a large display you can set on your desk. You can have a sign by it that says please don't talk any louder than this (arrow to the maximum acceptable level.)

Humans are visual creatures so hopefully having constant visual feedback that shows them what level they are talking at, will remind them to lower their voices.

I know these suggestions seem rather intense, and a lot of effort but you are asking people to change the way they have behaved their entire lives, around pretty much every one. I suspect you're going to have to use some pretty strong measures to effectively communicate your needs to them.

Consult with your doctor about this. A hearing specialist should be able to provide you with a hearing aid that softens rather than amplifies sound - the plugs themselves should deaden the sound, so you're basically just turning the "strength" of the aid down.

This should make things more comfortable with you without constantly having to ask people to quieten down. It'll also limit the effect of the environment (since you can't tell the rest of the world to be quiet).

I agree that this is more of a practical than an interpersonal answer, but it seems appropriate here.

  • Thanks for this advice. I agree that this would be a good solution, but unfortunately earplugs (or a hearing aid that softens sounds, equivalently) cannot really be used when one talks, as it greatly amplifies your voice (and might even damage the inner ear due to bone conduction, according to the specialists). My feeling is that I have explored the technological possibilities in vain, which is why I am looking for advice on the "interpersonal" aspect of the problem. – Oliv Jan 10 at 12:32

I am suffering from a medical condition called hyperacusis, which makes normal levels of noise painful (and potentially damaging) for me.

How to ask people to speak softer?

I recommend three things:

  1. show the effort you're making to deal with your hyperaccusis. There are therapies and techniques to help relieve the symptoms of hyperacusis. If you use the techniques and explain them to others it is more likely they will consider your problem real. Because you wouldn't be doing therapies if there wasn't a problem, right? It also adds a positive note to the problem, that it can be controlled. If it were not to be controlled, people would feel helpless, and wouldn't put much effort into abiding to your requests.
  2. Elaborate on why a softer voice will help you. [this works best when you've done step 1: make people feel they can control your situation.] It's fine to repeat this reason. If you say it plenty of times it is more likely to stick in their heads.

    "Could you speak softer? Because my ears need rest. I've got a bad day today." [makes it about yourself]

  3. visual cues: wearing red earplugs can give a visual reminder to others that they should speak softer around you. Again, this will make your condition more real and controllable to others, even though the earplugs may not help much.

You don't even have to explain to everyone that you have hyperacusis. It is a rare condition that few people can relate to.

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    Red earplugs means nothing to me, I've never heard of this. If I saw someone wearing earplugs, the tendency would be to speak louder, not softer. – Snow Jan 10 at 8:15
  • @Snow I think the combination of knowing that someone can't handle loud noises and seeing her wearing ear plugs should not make you speak louder. – Boondoggle Jan 11 at 6:00

@boondoggle has some great suggestions. Hopefully a reminder of "I'm sorry but my ears are extra sensitive today. Your volume is normal but I'm hypersensitive today."

There are several kickstarter companies who are working on earphone/plugs that cancel out certain frequencies. As I don't know the entire nature of your medical condition but perhaps this is something you can bring up with your hearing specialist.

Here's one company called Knops.

  • These products look very promising, thank you very much for the info! – Oliv Jan 13 at 7:59

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