This Bud’s For You (or not…)
January 12th, 2011

One of the cutest things that IEP does is to take the earbuds from his dad’s iPhone, hold them up to his ears, and bob his head along to the music.  He looks like a tiny little dude and it makes me laugh every time he does it.  Unfortunately, I just learned, if he keeps it up he could end up on a one-way path to hearing loss.

Earlier this week an innocent stroll through the New York Times Sunday Magazine led me to this article on the correlation between headphones and hearing loss.  Apparently the number of teens with some hearing loss has climbed 33% since 1994.  Earbuds, which have become significantly more popular since the launch of the iPod nearly 10 years ago (has it really been that long?), are particularly bad offenders as they block out less background noise prompting users to listen at higher volumes.  It seems that the same man who gave us the chance to conduct our lives to the tunes of a personal soundtrack is also slowly whittling away at our eardrums.  Steve Jobs giveth, and Steve Jobs taketh away.

However, worthwhile a topic as hearing loss is, there was actually another side-effect of headphones that I found more intriguing, namely isolation.  In today’s world earbuds are ubiquitous.  We see them everywhere.  On the subway.  At the gym.  I even see them on people walking around my office during the day.  But what does this little accessory say to other people?  If you go about your life with earbuds forever in place, what is the net effect to our culture?  It prohibits a shared experience.  It mitigates conversation.  And it sends a big visual signal that you are off limits to those around you; that we are off limits to each other.

I have sat on both sides of this fence, and so I struggle to say what is right and what is wrong.  I have sat next to overly talkative people on planes and been grateful that my big headphones (my ears are too small for earbuds…) signaled to the intruder that I was not an appropriate recipient of their chatter.  I have also tried to approach someone at their desk in the office and been frustrated that I was forced to “interrupt” their personal concert to ask a work-related question.

As I think about it I believe there should be some social code surrounding headphone usage.  It’s taken us years to get there, but I think today most people understand the do’s and don’t’s of cell phone etiquette.  Not all people follow them, but we at least have a common understanding of what they are:  Don’t talk loudly in a public place.  Don’t constantly check your phone while someone is trying to have an in-person conversation with you.  If you have to take a call in the middle of a meal or a meeting, excuse yourself first. And so on.

The problem with establishing such a code for headphones is that their usage is, by definition, silent and unobtrusive.  But silent and unobtrusive carry burdens of their own.  We are social creatures.  We live in a society of shared experiences.  If we all self-select out of the collective, what does the collective become?

The NYT article suggests that in 2011 we all unplug from time to time; that we listen to music together.  If we did that a bit more frequently I suspect we might be exposed to something new that we like.  Or we might have an interesting conversation about it.  Walking through your day with a “don’t bother me” sign hanging from your ears might be appealing from time to time.  But if it becomes our default I think we all lose.

9 Responses to “This Bud’s For You (or not…)”

  1. e Says:

    Interestingly, this subject was the cause of our first marital “not-seeing-eye-to-eye” more than 37 years ago. I married into a high technology (for the time) music system. JDP had made numerous reels of his perfect music and felt certain that by placing these huge earphones (that’s all there was then) on his head he could better enjoy the high quality recordings he’d made. When I finally got the nerve to speak up (I was young), I explained that I primarily saw them as a way to cut me out. He never used them again…..at least not when I was within 5 miles of home. I think technology today has given everyone so many ways to escape from the reality of the moment. And just a thought…….what if that overly chatty person sitting by you on the plane had something to say that you could’ve learned from…….or just needed an ear of a listener. I’m not pointing fingers as I’ve definitely pretended sleep on a plane, but I’ve also had some conversations that might have started as a chore but in the end were beneficial (for any number of reasons) for one or both of us. Life is for living and living is being a part of every minute of life :)

  2. Gale Says:

    E – I love this comment. You make a wonderful point that it’s not always about us. The idea that the person in the plane seat next to you just needs a listening ear is an important one. What is the cost to us to listen to the other person, rather than to pre-empt their first words with our own nonverbal Stop sign? Additionally, I find it fascinating that conflict due to headphones dates back 37 years. I suppose it’s so easy to forget how great an impact seemingly little actions can have. Everything we do sends a signal to other people and we need to be thoughtful about the signals we send.

  3. Anne Says:

    Wow…I’ve never seen a coworker with earphones…students maybe, but not colleagues. That’s a whole new world!

    As a teenager, I loved earphones. Still sometimes do. I love the sense of escape. But i reserve those moments for vacations or travel or the gym…not the rest of daily life. I guess it’s like everything…moderation is key.

  4. Bridget Says:

    “Steve Jobs giveth, and Steve Jobs taketh away.” – great quote.

    Anyway, one thought came to me when you mention the isolation. Early descriptions of this crazy nut job in AZ were of a loner, walking his dog, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and listening to his ipod. I am not blaming Steve Jobs, but I think E said it best, “Life is for living” and using a device to shut oneself off from society cannot be good for that person’s well-being. I think we all can agree that the most enriching moments of our life have happened while we were actively engaged with others. Who knows what we miss out on while our ears are plugged.

  5. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    Thought-provoking indeed. I wear these little buds when writing out of the house, but that’s about it these days. But clearly – as you articulate here – there are side-effects, physical and interpersonal. I like the idea of unplugging, of valuing once again that community symphony we all seem so motivated to drown out.

  6. BigLittleWolf Says:

    How we use – and overuse – technology is always an issue. It’s funny, I remember when I was in my teens and 20s my mother saying all that loud rock was going to ruin our hearing. That’s nothing compared to what is available now.

    Your post also makes me think about all the time our kids are spending on screens of so many sorts – hours and hours and hours. I wonder what the vision of our kids will be like in the future.

  7. Rebecca Hanover Says:

    I have to admit that when I’m at the office where I work several days of the week, writing content, I’m one of those people wearing headphones to actually PURPOSEFULLY drown other noise out and, sometimes, prevent people from chit-chatting with me extraneously. I’m writing, creating and searching for words, while others are making noisy sales calls, etc. It’s kind of a necessity. With that said, no one ever feels that bad about interrupting, so I guess everyone understands that I’m not wearing them to disengage, only as a practicality.

    In terms of hearing loss – that’s an eye (or ear!) opener. I should think about how loud my ipod volume is… Thanks for the tip!

  8. Gale Says:

    Rebecca – For some reason, I give “creative” people a pass on the earbuds at work. In my office our graphic designer and web designer wear them frequently and it doesn’t really bother me. I don’t know if it’s because we’re in the same department (marketing) so I have a greater level of comfort in interrupting them, or if it’s because I understand that music can be a big additive to the creative process. I think it’s the people who wear them when walking around the halls that really bother me. That’s when it sends a much different signal. Thanks for stopping by again!

  9. Kimc Says:

    “If we all self-select out of the collective, what does the collective become?”

    If enough people self-select out of society, maybe they will reproduce less, and future generations will be less likely to be interested in cutting off the collective…. Just a thought….