Have you ridden a subway, bus, train, or airplane recently? Walked down a busy street, shopped in a crowded mall, waited at the doctor’s office, or gone grocery shopping? Have you been to a restaurant, worked out in a gym, had coffee in a cafe?
Anyone who’s spent time around other humans in the year 2019 can attest to one certainty:
People are looking at their phones.
All the time.
Not only are they looking at their phones, they’re listening to their phones. More specifically, they’re listening to music on their phone. And podcasts. And audiobooks. And satellite radio.
The era of the earbud has dawned, and with it a new civilization of distracted walkers, inattentive customers, and preoccupied drivers.
Listening to music, podcasts, and audiobooks can be fantastic, but courtesy and safety call for some basic earbud rules.
With that in mind, Considerable spoke to technology etiquette experts and health and safety advocates to find out when it’s fine to plug into your favorite podcast, and when you need to unplug and tune into your surroundings.
We broke it down into three categories:
1. Don’t think twice, it’s alright
Most of the time, having headphones or earbuds on and listening to something is no problem at all. If you’re walking, riding or working somewhere by yourself and your ability to hear outside noises won’t impact your safety or anyone else’s, then don’t worry about it.
- At work, to focus or block out office noise while laboring on a project, although check this study out if you want to know what co-workers might be thinking of you while you do.
- At home either just hanging out or while doing chores around the house.
- While traveling and the customary periods of dead time that come with it.
- Exercising, especially in a gym setting where there is no threat of oncoming traffic.
2. When manners demand attention
Now we get to a trickier category, in which opinions vary and expectations are less known. As earbuds and headphones become more ubiquitous their presence may seem unimportant, but that’s not true in every setting.
“The way to understand the etiquette guidelines for a new technology is to think of the old,” Jodi Smith, founder of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting of Marblehead, Massachusetts, told Considerable. “If it would be rude to have a phone or transistor radio to your ear in the situation, then chances are good your earbuds should be off and out.”
Bottom line: You should be ready and willing to take your earbuds or headphones off while interacting with other people.
According to Smith, “This would include situations where you are interacting with another human beings. Bank tellers, cashiers, co-workers, friends and religious leaders deserve at least the appearance of our full attention. Earbuds should be out.”
Other examples include:
- In a communal learning environment, no matter how long-winded an instructor, boring a workshop, or redundant the information at a community meeting.
- While eating with others. Eating alone? Sure, keep the headphones on, but if you are sharing the meal with others you have to take them off.
- Work meetings. While there will be other opportunities to have the earbuds on at work, during a meeting is not that time.
- While talking. To anyone. Just take them off — it’s the right thing to do.
3. Please don’t! You might get hurt
Sometimes, unplugging your ears is a matter of physical safety, both your own and the people around you.
Listening to music while ordering a hamburger might not be a great look, but it won’t lead to a serious medical situation (assuming you chew properly and don’t choke on a big bite of burger).
But driving a car, motorcycle, or bike while wearing headphones is just something you shouldn’t do. What about having just one earbud or earpiece in? That seems OK, according to nearly all the state laws Considerable could find.
This AAA compendium of driving laws shows that many states have no law against headphones use, while others have outlawed wearing headphones over both ears while driving or operating a bike.
States that have deemed it illegal to wear more than one earbud or headphone while driving include Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and a few others.
According to the list, the only states that outlaw headphone use entirely are Virginia, Washington, and Rhode Island. (Little Rhody has made it illegal to wear headphones at all while riding a bike, making it the toughest regulator of bicyclists’ headphone use.)
Check the full list to see your own state’s particular law, as many states have specific regulations in place.
Driving isn’t the only dangerous scenario headphones can complicate. Simply walking across busy intersections with fast-moving traffic requires full attention and awareness. At the very least, these are situations when the volume on your headphones should be turned off momentarily.
Anyone whose job includes some level of inherent danger (for example, construction workers and law-enforcement officials) shouldn’t distract themselves with entertainment piped through headphones.
Whether to wear or not wear earbuds is a common-sense decision that people will make for themselves.
Just remember: The audio can be paused, but your safety and the impression you make can’t be replayed so easily.