fb-pixel Skip to main content

Second-hand beep rage? It’s a thing

Adobe/Globe staff illustration

Let’s travel to the appliance section of the Lowes in Worcester and behold Christine Maxfield, who’s sporting a black eye and scratches — injuries sustained after her dryer’s “I’m done!!!!” beep panicked her cat.

Maxfield: “I’m looking for a washer and dryer that are silent.”

Employee: “But how will you know when your laundry is finished?”

Maxfield: “Is it an emergency? The clothes are going to sit there for four days anyway. What’s the urgency?”

Consumers have been tyrannized by beeps for years. But now the proliferation of nervous Nellie machines determined to update us on every development — I’m turning on now. Beep. I’m finished. Beep beep. I was done five minutes ago. Beep, beep, beep. You’re veering over the lane line. Beep. — has reached peak beep, and we’re starting to go sort of nuts.


Oh, for a machine that understands the Mafia code of omerta.

Some folks are suffering from second-hand beep, a condition triggered when the person whom the machine is trying to warn doesn’t notice or care, to the intense annoyance of the onlooker, or on-listener.

“Are you not hearing this???” Kasey Fielding, a waitress at The Fours sports bar, wondered (silently) in the back seat of a Lyft recently, as the driver remained oblivious to the car’s frantic reminders to put on his seat belt. Beep, beep, beep.

Beeps serve several purposes, among them to free “mom” from having to hover over the appliance to monitor its progress, said Joe Derochowski, a home-industry analyst with the marketing research company NPD Group. “Anything that allows mom to stay in control of her time, she’s going to be attracted to,” he said.

Put that way, who wouldn’t want interim reports from the milk frother? But even his own wife is so beep adverse that she regularly stands by the microwave, determined to cut the cycle short one second before its natural end so she doesn’t have to hear the beep.


“Obviously there is an audience out there that is annoyed,” he said.

What is so annoying? There’s the actual sound, of course, but beyond that, the constant interruptions make us feel as if we’re always on duty, said Amber Case, the author of “Calm Technology” and a former fellow at MIT’s Center for Civic Media and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.

“You have the Greek concept of ‘chronos,’ or industrial time, and ‘kairos,’ or more human time — watching a sunset or falling in love. When a beep goes off, it shuttles you right back to chronos time.”

But sad as it may be, we need beeps, said Shannon Mattern, author of “Things that Beep: A Brief History of Product Sound Design” and a professor of anthropology at The New School for Social Research.

“There are some appliances that do make artificial sounds they didn’t make in the past,” she acknowledged, “but that’s because they’ve lost mechanical sonic cues as they’ve become digital. You used to be able to listen to a machine and it would offer diagnostic cues about the proper functioning of their moving parts. Now that we can’t always listen for those same cues, we have to rely on artificial dings and beeps.”

Beep rage feels modern, but it’s not new, said Jonathan Sterne, a professor at McGill University who studies the cultural dimensions of communication technologies.


“There were people complaining about beeps before the term was even coined,” he e-mailed the Globe.

Historians have shown that car horns were one of the main complaints fielded by antinoise activists in the early 1900s when they helped craft the first zoning laws in such places as New York City, he said. “But of course there were also complaints about radios and piano playing, so it wasn’t just cars.”

Most of us think about alerts only when they annoy us, but there’s a growing field of professionals who see the auditory component of once-mute machines as an opportunity. They toss around terms like “sound branding,” “acoustic signature,” and “audible identity.”

At GE Appliances, musical notes and flourishes have replaced beeps on all but the least expensive appliances, and senior industrial designer Tim Read sounded more like a record company executive than a guy working with ovens when he explained why the company is updating its kitchen concerts.

“Some were starting to sound dated,” he said, “or cheesy.”

Here’s Read talking about the new sounds for one of the higher-priced kitchen appliance lines. “The person who purchases Cafe is an entertainer, and we want to let the appliance show her as the champion or the hero of her story,” he said. “Her wall oven sounds are a nod to the sounds that you would hear during a dinner party or an event she might host, so imagine the light clinking of glassware.”


That may be pleasant, but of course people will complain about anything.

No sooner had Zach Braiker, CEO of Refine + Focus, a Boston marketing strategy firm, finished griping about his Roomba’s disruptive beeps, than he turned his attention to a less manmade irritant.

“I don’t even want to say this because it’s not portraying me in the best light,” he said, “but there are some birds outside in the morning . . . and their chirping is not melodious.”

Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.