6 Jun 2023

Air pod etiquette

Headphones, AirPods and wireless earbuds are an effective way of sealing yourself off from the world and creating your own hermetic zone of privacy. With increasingly efficient noise-cancelling technology you can effectively block out all external noise stimuli and curate your own soundscape, be it music, podcasts or talking books.

During the pandemic many of us got used to living in our own worlds, listening to music or podcasts while we worked a home, secure in the knowledge that we were not having a negative impact on anyone. But it is problematic to take this kind of behaviour into a social or office space; if you are wearing headphones or earbuds you will not be able to hear conversations, join in impromptu brainstorming sessions, eavesdrop and pick up interesting intelligence, or collaborate with colleagues sitting nearby.

Whilst prominent headphones, or earbuds with dangling wires advertise their presence, earbuds and AirPods are discreet and unobtrusive and people around you might not even be aware you are using them. This can be disconcerting and frustrating for all concerned – nobody wants to feel that they have been wasting their time trying to communicate someone who is effectively dead to the world.

Whatever device you use, there is a risk that other people may find your desire to withdraw and effectively ‘shut down’ communication rude and offensive and some workplaces are now banning these devices, which they feel are detrimental to productivity and collegiality. Here are some etiquette tips to help you navigate the world of headphones:

• If you work in an open plan office where there is frequently conversation and interchange of ideas between colleagues, do not wear headphones or earbuds – you will be a much more valuable staff member if you stay alert, tune into conversations around you and contribute to the general discourse.

 • Accept that most workspaces are social and interactive, and that headphones or earbuds are therefore inappropriate. You may long to escape into your latest podcast or block out the world with music, but you will look come across as a stand-offish non-participant, which is never a good look.

 • If your office is very noisy and you have a piece of work to do that demands intense concentration, you could tell colleagues that you’re using headphones or earbuds to cancel noise and gain focus. Make sure this is for a finite period; just say something like “I’ve really got to concentrate on writing this report for the next hour so I’m going use my earbuds”. It would be a better option, however, to find a breakout room or quiet space where you can work in peace. 

• If you are wearing any kind of wireless earbud, whatever the reason, and someone approaches you and wants to talk, take out both earbuds and focus on the conversation – do not leave one earbud in your ear and look half-committed or distracted. People will assume you’re anxious to escape back into your private world and that you resent the intrusion. 

• Never leave your headphones or earbuds in your ears when you are placing an order in a bar, café or restaurant or interacting with a shop assistant. It is extremely disrespectful to people who are serving you, as it implies that they are not worthy of your full attention.

• Be sensitive about using headphones or earbuds in very quiet spaces, such as libraries. If you’re listening at loud volume some of the noise may leak out and will be audible to neighbours, who may find it distracting and irritating.

• It’s fine to use these devices on public transport, but if you are using them be extra vigilant about the people around you – somebody might be asking you to move a bag so they can sit down, or requesting help with an item of luggage, and if you can’t hear and you’re not picking up on visual clues, you could come across as rude or oafish.

• Many people opt to stay plugged in when they’re walking around town and negotiating heavy traffic. This is very dangerous; part of being a safe pedestrian is listening to traffic sounds around you, which alert you to take extra precautions at pedestrian crossings and junctions. There is also a tendency, if you become absorbed in your playlist or podcast, to switch off from the real world and enter a dreamlike, disassociated state. This plays havoc with your concentration and focus and might actually be a safety hazard.

While all these devices have obvious benefits and attractions, they should be used discriminately. There are many circumstances in which you will be tempted to switch off the cacophony of the real world and tune into your own soundtrack. But remember that, whenever you interact with fellow humans, you will need to be mindful and observant and that means listening as well as looking.


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