Does Wearing In-Ear Headphones Make Us Antisocial?

Photo copyright Menno van der Horst — http://www.flickr.com/photos/mennovdhorst/3292806242/

Remember when it was fashionable for people to lug around huge boombox stereos on their shoulders? Sure, it annoyed some folks — folks who weren’t hip enough to appreciate Run DMC, or Salt-N-Pepa, or Queen Latifah before her cinematic days — but something about the experience was communal, almost tribal. Boomboxes were a loud, public invitation to join a party. What party? It didn’t matter. Wherever there was a blaring boombox, there was someone bopping to a groove and asking others to join in. It was a roving concert as the boombox-holder walked through civic spaces like parks and parking lots and neighborhoods, using music not to isolate strangers, but to unify them as listeners.

Contrast this scenario with the music-loving world of today. Isolation through music is a relatively new phenomenon, considering that until the invention of the Sony Walkman in 1979, music was heard on radios in the car, gramophones in the living room, or jukeboxes in the bar or dancehall. While today’s famous iPod commercials show black silhouettes happily interacting with each other as they are plugged into their mp3 players, nothing could be further from the truth — the only problem was that a commercial that showed black silhouettes walking down the street with their heads pointed down and their hands in their pockets wouldn’t be as exciting. More than ever, listening to music has become a solitary activity.

Naturally, it’s about more than the privacy people seek in their bedrooms when they want to air guitar to Aerosmith or brush-sing with Kelly Clarkson in the mirror. The question is, does wearing earphones in public make people antisocial, or at least make them appear to be (which often has the same effect)? It appears there is an emerging tendency for people to block themselves off from the world by slipping earbuds in before they go about their business for the day. Earphone-wearers aren’t expected to comment, critique or laugh — they aren’t asked for directions, their opinion of the day’s weather, or about last night’s big game. Might something as simple as a bound colored wire extending down from the head tell the world, “Go away”?

Earbuds In, Civility Out

If anecdotal evidence is any indication, it might be as simple as earbuds in, civility out. On music site CBC Radio, blogger Lana Gay went out walking one day when her iPod battery died. Though at first miffed, Gay ended up enjoying the resultant “social experiment.” “Without headphones to hide behind, I started talking to people around me,” she recounted in an April 2010 post. “I learned about someone’s pug named Margot, talked to charity canvassers, learned my coffee barista is a huge Caribou fan, and a very gutsy 22 year old tried to make small talk and asked for my number.” On a 2011 Reddit board entitled “Dear Anti-Social People on the Bus Who Wear Headphones,” after the OP attempted to rile the community with obscenities, respondents ironically pointed out that such behavior is why they keep to themselves in the first place. “Speaking face-to-face with strangers is overrated,” said one replier. “Stop talking so loud. I can’t hear my music,” said another. “What possesses people to make idle conversation on a bus?” said a third. “I don’t know you [and] I probably don’t want to know you.”

Even five years ago, the rampant use of earphones to shut out exterior noises — and people — was being noted in the media. College newspaper The East Tennessean reported the phenomenon with the story of a Florida-born teenager named Dante Lima who, when first matriculating at New York University, was so unprepared for metropolitan stimuli he resorted to earbuds. “If you want to get away from [the sidewalk hucksters], just start listening to your iPod,” he said. “They don’t approach people with headphones on.” Even if wearing earphones is, by definition, antisocial, it seems that most young people at least understand the rationale.

Possible Redemption

But perhaps, as they say, timing is everything. There appears to be a time and place wherein earphone-wearing isn’t seen as a giant “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging from the neck — exercise! When exercising at the gym — a public place — most people aren’t looking to find their next best friend o soul mate. For the most part, exercisers want to show up, work out, hit the showers and go. And this, say experts and layfolk, is just what the doctor ordered. Most injuries in the gym happen when people are distracted, and most distractions — both in the gym and in any other public place — happen when people eavesdrop or participate in unexpected chatter. “By trying to have casual conversations or hear what other people are talking about, you can easily lose your focus and destroy your routine,” reads one blog about “running headphones,” or earbuds that are specifically designed for athletically active wearers. “By wearing a good pair of running headphones, you will be able to isolate yourself and keep focus … A lot less people will try to approach you and talk to you if they … see you are in ‘training mode’.”

Also, as evidenced by another popular use of earphones in the gym, motivation for plugging in may extend beyond a desire to avoid small talk. A writer for the Sports Headphones blog attested to the power of the perfect personal playlist. “I always tune into my workout headphones and try to forget there are people around me,” the poster said. “A lot of people who swear by music while working out just depend on the music system that the gym provides. … [S]ome routines will actually need slower tracks, or sometimes you will just be better off with your own choice of tracks depending on your mood.”

What does all of this mean? Is it antisocial or not to wear earphones in public? All signs do point to a perception on the part of others that earphone-wearers wish to be left alone — whether they are riding the bus or walking on the sidewalk or working out at the gym, whether they are avoiding street vendors or pollsters or average chatty strangers. It’s not necessary for society to return to the days of the loud public boombox. It could be argued, though, that a happy medium is in order. Everyone loves his or her own playlist, but sometimes — just sometimes — mightn’t it be worth it to give up Moby or Kid Cudi or Ke$ha in order to chew the fat with a cashier, or give directions to a tourist, or hear a compliment from a fellow gymrat?

Sources

Are my workout headphones making me anti-social?. (2010, September 7). Sport Headphones: the ultimate guide to sports and running headphones. Retrieved April 9, 2011, from http://sport-headphones.org/are-my-workout-headphones-making-me-anti-social/

Dear antisocial people on the bus. (2011, March 28). Reddit. Retrieved April 9, 2011, from http://www.reddit.com/r/reddit.com/comments/gdjl2/dear_antisocial_people_on_the_bus_who_wear/

Gay, L. (2011, April 7). Today on Lanarama: Are Heaphones Making Us Anti-Social?. CBC Radio 3 . Retrieved April 9, 2011, from http://radio3.cbc.ca/#/blogs/2010/4/Today-on-Lanarama-Are-Headphones-Making-Us-Anti-Social

Running Headphones – Are They Anti-Social | cuisinelimousine.net. (2010, December 12).cuisinelimousine.net. Retrieved April 9, 2011, from http://www.cuisinelimousine.net/sports-recreation/individual-sports/running-headphones-are-they-anti-social

Shrives, L. (2011, March 3). Anti-social behavior becoming more common everyday life.East Tennessean. Retrieved April 9, 2011, from http://www.easttennessean.com/viewpoint/anti-social-behavior-becoming-more-common-in-everyday-life-1.2058790

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