Without no doubts, I accept that I am guilty of aural self-isolation. Just like the other day, I missed an entire important conversation between my colleagues. I was completely unaware, not because I was so engaged with my computer but, that I was engaged in a book being transmitted through two white earpieces.
Technological inventions, for a person like me, creates a very strong and not totally crazy illusion that we work in a peopled environment of rich variety and experience. In the course of my Job, I meet a lot of people (many in active chat windows) with whom I’ve worked with over the course of my career, while also having the benefit of ideas and insight by expert strangers a click away.
I sometimes even wear headphones that allow me to submerge more profoundly into my study, creating a bubble that coarse perturbation and sharpens my concentration. For me, it’s a good way to live. Alone, and yet truly connecting with people, even if they are across the city or in a different state or country.
Are headphones making us antisocial, or at least make us seem to be?
It seems there is a new likelihood for people to block themselves off from the world by wearing headphones in before they go about their job for the day. Headphones users are not expected to comment or contribute to a conversation — they aren’t asked for directions.
If anecdotal evidence is any indication, it might be as easy as headphones in, civility out. On the music site of CBC Radio, a blogger named Lana Gay went out one day when her iPod battery died. Though at first, she was angry, she ended up enjoying her time at a restaurant, without headphones to hide behind, she started talking to people around her.
Even seven years back, headphones were significantly used to shut out external noises and people. This was being noted in the media. A College Newspaper, The East Tennessean reported the observable fact with the story of a Florida-born teenager named Dante Lima who, when first matriculating at New York University, was so not ready for a metropolitan way of life, resorted to wearing headphones.
According to him, “If you want to get away from [the sidewalk peddler], just start listening to your iPod with your headphone,” he said. “They don’t approach people with headphones on.”
Even if wearing headphones is, by definition, antisocial, it appears that most people at least understand the reason.
But what about youths just entering a traditional corporate environment?
The essential and craftful tango between inner-directed and outward-focused, first recorded in David Reisman’s landmark 1950 book titled The Lonely Crowd, this has been problematically changed by technology. There’s the presence of a new lonely crowd in our work environment.
My unofficial examination of different people I know under the age of thirty, working in a range of desk jobs, uncovered that whatever the composition of their office spaces, most younger people use headphones about half of the time they’re working.
All but one of those I talked to told me that they had at least one G-chat or Skype window open throughout the day, every day — some of them checking in with their non-work friends or family members every hour.
And the majority of these people said, they fell far more connected and comfortable, moment to moment with people outside their workplaces than with any of their co-workers — the nearby colleagues, including their superiors, with whom they communicate majorly through e-mails or chat programs.
This is very much a new world with countless numbers of legal and security issues for both employer and employees, which are beyond the domain of this post. My focus, rather, is on the profound impact these new 21st century forms of divided attention and isolation such as wearing of headphones have on the behavior of individuals, company cultures and the society at large, how they make people more than ever all alone among a group of trifling associates.
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Can you miss out on opportunities wearing headphones?
One of the people I interviewed told me that “wearing headphones really makes me feel watchful most of the time because I am always afraid that someone might ask me a question or say something to me and I will not be aware”. This person is right to be disturbed about this.
These days, by contrast, as one young interviewee put it:
“Generally, whoever is talking to me will make sure they get my attention if I didn’t appear to hear the first time. I have never missed something important, usually just part of an interaction that was going on in the office.”
Exactly, It’s just that kind of loss of daily osmotic information exchange and collaborative bonding that ought to interest 21st-century employees and employers. It’s about information exchange, resource exchange, idea generation and so on.
If an employee is attached to her desk with headphones on, engaged in music and G-chatting with her best friend, she is missing the privilege to develop relationships with people on the job who might be working on a project for which she’d be perfect for the job, or who’s striking around the idea to launch a new firm that needs precisely her talents and skills. It’s a big and real loss in terms of career progress and development.
What does all of this mean? Does it mean wearing headphones makes us anti-social in public places?
All indications do point to a belief on the part of others that headphone-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 needed for the society to go back to the days of the loud public boom box. It could be argued, though, that a happy means is in order.
Generally, headphones don’t make us anti-social. Without wearing headphones, some people will still be anti-social.
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