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Recently I was delivering a business and electronic etiquette presentation for construction professionals targeted for advancement. One of the leaders asked the proper protocol for wearing earbuds at the office. He said he finds it awkward to interrupt colleagues or employees wearing headphones when he needs to get their attention.
He shared this challenge with his daughter who was happy to fill him in on what she felt was correct headphone manners. All her colleagues practice it so she believed it to be a universal rule.
Here’s her headphone etiquette; if the person is wearing both earbuds, it means that they’re engaged in a task that requires immense concentration and you should avoid interrupting. However, if they’re only wearing one earbud it means you can go ahead and interrupt them. She explained that everybody in business knows this rule and he should get with the program.
As the group discussed this we found a few problems with this electronic etiquette “rule”.
If you take out only one earbud when you talk to someone, the message you’re projecting is "I recognize you’re talking to me, but I really don’t want to give you my full attention.” Or it could mean “hurry it up, I have other things I need to be doing, and hearing about what you did on the weekend isn't one of them”.
Just because something is done in one office doesn't make it a universal rule. Electronic etiquette evolves and changes as new technologies emerge. It is important to discuss it with your colleagues, maybe at a staff meeting and decide what is going to be the headphone protocol in your office. Does it make sense and is it still good manners? Is it logical and still builds communication and respect for clients and colleagues in your workplace?
Ultimately, it depends on your role, and how responsive you need to be. In general wearing headphones in a professional office environment, where you are in view of the public should be discouraged. If you’re in face to face customer service, you’re not likely to be tuning others out. It can make you look unapproachable and unsociable which can hinder working relationships.
Then there’s the difficulty of actually getting someone’s attention if someone’s back is turned away from you and can’t hear you. The good manners way to interrupt someone in a cubicle setting is to “knock” or verbally announce yourself at the partition.
If they're wearing two earbuds and you have to touch them to get their attention and they don’t see you coming, you might startle them. You could text them and ask them to drop by your desk when they have a moment. But what if you’re wearing your earbuds? It becomes a vicious circle! What came first, the chicken or the earbuds? You could always try firing nerf bullets or elastic bands. And that becomes a whole other etiquette question.