I am guilty of wearing headphones in public almost everywhere I go. It doesn't matter if I'm pounding city streets, on a busy train, or walking the supermarket aisles. There's always something in my ear, usually a Spotify playlist or something from my ever-increasing podcast backlog.
The other day, at the supermarket checkout, I caught myself removing only one earbud in order to acknowledge the cashier.
Who knows what I was listening to or why it was so important. In the following minutes, I was disgusted with myself. How rude can a person be, to not even take two minutes to properly acknowledge another person when they are serving you? I remain internally mortified and have pledged not to repeat my offence.
I'm now more awake to how attached to our headphones we all are in public. And I have a problem with it.
If you were part of an alien race, looking down on earth, what do you think would be going on here? Why would you think humans would be voluntarily closing themselves off from society with actual, sound-blocking plugs in our heads? I honestly reckon said aliens would believe there was some sort of eardrum-damaging high-pitched sound on earth. Something humans could hear but they couldn't, like those dog whistles.
Let's be frank. Wearing headphones in public makes you wholly unapproachable. It's a universal signal for "I'm busy" or "don't bother me". It is understood across the globe: you simply don't interrupt someone with buds in their ears. They are on their own buzz and won't appreciate a break with that.
In reality, we wear headphones as a form of armour. It's protection from the parts of society we don't want to be involved in. They are worn so we can filter out the conversations of others, the noises we find displeasing, and to distract ourselves from our own thoughts. Forbid that we could be comfortable in our own silence and with our own minds, right?
I acknowledge that we do genuinely enjoy the content that's in our ears. I love music. There are a couple of podcasts I can't get enough of. Yet somehow, my continual wearing of headphones has made the pleasure of these an entirely solitary experience, which I also regret.
I'm also bothered by the idea that I will be missing out on conversations and interactions that will enrich my day. Who knows how many laughs or learnings I'm not experiencing because somebody has decided not to speak to me? How about the opportunities I've missed out on, and will never know of, because I didn't look friendly enough?
There's a good case for showing ourselves as more vulnerable (not less) when we're going about our daily lives. Taking these damn headphones off our ears is a form of bravery, like taking off a bulletproof vest. You're daring to enter the unknown world without a shield to protect you from it. Instead, you'll be forced to see, feel, and interact with your complete surroundings. No more hiding. No more pretending the world doesn't exist.
Despite my best efforts, I know I will probably return to old ways when it comes to putting those plugs back in my ears. Going forward, if you see me wearing headphones in public, I want you to call me out on it. Seriously, tap me on the shoulder and force me to take my earbuds out.
You won't be interrupting me. Maybe we'll exchange smiles, maybe we'll have a chat. You'll be reminding me of what I've been missing out on for so long, and how close I am to falling back into that same invulnerable, unapproachable trap.