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Ask McArdle: What’s that constant low hum in my office?

It’s not necessarily the ventilation—many workplaces deliberately pipe in white noise

Woman working in office wearing headphones


The heating vents in my office emit a constant low hum. Back me up—I think the noise is driving my desktop goldfish crazy.

Are you sure that what you’re hearing is actually the air circulation system? Some workplaces use white noise generators to deaden the sound of folks in neigbouring cubicles pounding on their keyboards or chatting about last night’s game.

Ask McArdle badgeIn fact, that white noise—heating vents or not—might actually be helping you get things done. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that ambient noise played at 70 decibels—louder than conversational speech but comparable to street noise—actually increases creative thinking. A moderate level of noise makes it slightly harder for you to process information, forcing you to think abstractly about whatever you’re doing.

It’s possible to crank the volume up too far—high noise levels are too distracting to have the same creativity-boosting effect—or down too low. While silence may be golden, it has been shown to impair innovative ideas; the same study found that moderate noise was more effective than a quieter level of background sound—a whispering 50 decibels—for abetting creative thinking.

Just count yourself lucky you’re not listening to pink or brown noise, variants of white noise that boost or lower sub-frequencies and can sound like the noise you hear when you land on a TV channel that’s not getting a cable signal (pink) or the inside of an aircraft (brown). Ultimately, a low hum is better than a buzz. And don’t worry too much about your goldfish. It doesn’t have ears.

Got a management concern? Need to settle a debate? Ask CB’s resident expert in expertise, McArdle: @AskMcArdle