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Quiz: 5 Ways to Practice Proper Headphone Etiquette

Rafe Needleman
Editorial Director, Yahoo Tech
Yahoo Tech

If you work in an office with no walls between the desks, you probably have headphones for those times when you need a little acoustic privacy. But how do you manage the new etiquette of being physically present in a space but studiously not available — which is what wearing headphones often indicates? Try our little etiquette quiz:

1. Getting attention. When you want to talk to someone wearing headphones, the correct way to get his attention is to: 

a) Tap him on the shoulder. 
b) Yell at him. 
c) Knock on his desk or the top of his cubicle wall.
d) Wave at him.
e) Send an instant message.

Answer: c), Knock. Or maybe d), Wave. Tapping someone can be very startling. You want his attention, not to shock him. Yelling is just rude. But a nice knock can often be felt as well as heard, even when a person is listening to loud music. Waving can work, but sometimes you have to get right into the person’s field of vision for him to register that you’re there, and that’s not always possible.

Also read: What It Means to Wear Headphones at Work

If you’re sitting at the next desk over, you can also e) send an IM from your computer. It’s a good way to pop up an alert on someone’s screen. But standing behind someone and tapping out a message on your smartphone while they’re sitting down right in front of you should only be done when the person is so jacked into the virtual world that they’re completely oblivious to the physical world around them. In which case, you might be better off leaving them alone anyway.

2. When to back off. When is it appropriate to interrupt someone wearing headphones?

a) Never.
b) Whenever you want to talk to her, about anything.
c) Only in an emergency.

Answer: It depends. You have to know what you’re about to interrupt and be sensitive to the context. If you’re dealing with an engineer concentrating at a screen of computer code, back off unless you have an emergency. If that engineer is browsing Pinterest after lunch, it’s probably more appropriate.

3. When to put your walls up. If someone near you is talking loudly and you need to concentrate, do you:

a) Ask him to move to a conference room.
b) Put on your headphones.
c) Glare menacingly at him and then put on your headphones.

Answer: While c) is the most tempting answer in a lot of cases, it’s rarely the right one. The correct (and respectful) response to loud-talkers depends on several factors, including the type of office environment and even the time of day. Sometimes conversations can and should be moved, and sometimes workflow or a creative process really should not be interrupted. 

Also read: 5 Headphone Styles that Make a Statement

A walls-free office demands sensitivity from everybody, from the loud, gregarious types who may not be aware of how they’re impacting others to the quiet, heads-down workers who, thanks to headphones, now have a way to temporarily reduce the impact of the outside world.

4. How to talk with ’phones. If you are wearing headphones and want to talk to someone, you should:

a) Remove your headphones.
b) Slide one headphone off an ear, or remove just one earbud.
c) Turn off your headphones but keep them on your head.
d) Just start talking with your headphones on and the music still playing.

Answer: a) Take off the headphones. It shows that you are giving the other person your full attention and respect.

Furthermore, if you keep your headphones on, and especially if you keep the audio coming into your ears, you don’t know how you’ll sound to the other person. Chances are very good you’ll end up talking much too loudly, in “headphone voice” as your brain tries to compensate for the noise coming into your ears.

Just taking one ‘phone off (b), is a passive-aggressive move. It says, “I recognize you’re talking to me, but I really don’t want to give you my full attention.” The respectful thing to do is take both ‘phones off and tell the person you are occupied in your current task. 

5. When to use headphones. When is it appropriate to wear headphones in the office?

a) Only when you’re really heads-down, working on a hard project that needs your full attention.
b) Whenever you need a little privacy or time without interruption.
c) Whenever you want.

Answer: c) It’s up to you. If you feel better working with a degree of solitude, then saddle up. Unless, of course, it’s your job to be available to passers-by (for example, if you’re in a support role in the office). In that case, you need to be aware that wearing headphones can telegraph to people around you that you’re not available for interaction.

Rafe Needleman can be reached at rafeneedleman@yahoo.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @rafe​.