Two earbuds, one or none?

headphone earbud etiquette - rock onRecently 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.

A universal earbud rule?

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.

Does everyone know this earbud rule?

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”.

This buds for you?

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?

Face 2 face

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.

Excuse me

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.

The chicken or the… earbuds

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.

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Posted by Joanne Blake – the Canadian business etiquette expert and well mannered earbud wearer

About the author 

Joanne Blake

JOANNE BLAKE Canadian speaker, corporate image consultant & business etiquette expert. If you're interested in booking a presentation, keynote or coaching, contact me. Based in Calgary / Edmonton, Alberta in western Canada.

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    1. Thanks for the earbud hardware tips, especially about the budget ones. Someone I know (whose name starts with a T and ends with a Y) is always looking for deals especially good quality at a good price.

  2. Thanks for this, Joanne. I previously worked in an open office environment which was extremely noisy. Ear buds were almost a necessity to get through the day enabling workers to focus on the job and deter interruptions. It may also depend on the type of work the employee is doing–more detail requires more focus and something to help deal with the background noise. I agree that people need to maintain polite dealings with everyone around them, in spite of earbud usage.

  3. Thanks for weighing in David. You make a good point about finding balance; the workplace is evolving and we need to evolve along with it.

  4. Some good humour on this one!

    It’s actually become a complex situation with the ear buds. Although I am more old school and believe it’s a way tune out of your work environment and become less engaged; I also have come to recognize that some focus better on their tasks and when you factor in the open office environment and distractions it’s understandable.

    Guess it’s a matter of being tolerant and finding the right balance.

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