Manners For The Digital Age

Audio Cocooning (Transcript)

Is it rude to retreat into your headphones when catching a ride to work with someone?

Farhad Manjoo:  “Thanks for the lift! Sorry, I couldn’t hear you. My ear buds are in.”

Emily Yoffe:  I’m Emily Yoffe, Slate’s Dear Prudence advice columnist.

Farhad:  I’m Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo. And this is Manners for the Digital Age.

Emily:  Today’s question is from a listener who wonders why he’s getting tuned out during the morning commute. He writes, “Dear Farhad and Emily, my roommate and I both work at the same place, so we spend a lot of time together commuting. Fairly often, while we’re walking to the train or when we get into the train or the car, sometimes I drive, she’ll abruptly pop in her ear buds and start listening to music. One minute, we’re talking, and the next, she’s in her own little world.

Now, I don’t need to be the constant center of attention and I understand that sometimes a person might just want to have their thoughts to themselves, but I can’t help feel a little miffed when she does it. It would probably only make things worse to call attention to it. What do you think?” Signed, iPeeved.

So, Farhad, does this happen to you? You’re in the car with someone, like your wife, and all of a sudden she slips on her headphones and is gone?

Farhad:  This has never happened to me, most likely because if the situation were to happen, I’d be the one putting on the headphones. I’m the sort that does listen to the headphones in our family. I think we’ve covered this before. I usually have them on and tune out the world.

But even though I’m sort of sympathetic to the idea of tuning people out and being in your own audio cocoon, I think it’s rude to do so without announcing it. This is this person’s roommate, so they’re friends, presumably. I think what she should do is say, “Hey, I’m going to listen to some tunes now,” and then pop in the headphones.

Emily:  I agree. This is why you say, “Excuse me,” before you get up and go to the bathroom. Obviously your getting up and leaving the room announces you’ve got something else to do. It’s just polite to acknowledge other people and say you’re changing your state or you’re leaving the situation.

I think it’s slightly that the car and the train have different rules. If you’re riding on the train and you’re “blah, blah, blah,” there’s a lot of body language and facial expression and you can start reaching for your book or listening device or iPad, and that signals, “I’m shifting to a different state.”

In that case, if both of you go off, that’s fine. If you were really in the middle of a conversation and you feel like “I just need a few minutes to chill out,” I think it’s fine to say, “I need to zone out. I’m going to listen to music now.”

Farhad: The idea of body language is a good point. I think you can announce this without actually announcing it. You can make motions to reach for your book or iPod, and then it’s okay. It doesn’t sound like that’s what this woman is doing.

The worst is when you do that, when you reach for your book or iPod and the other person doesn’t get that you want to be alone – I’ve had this happen on planes a lot, where you sit next to a stranger. Mostly, when I’m a plane, I just want to get out my laptop and work. You end up sitting next to a Chatty Cathy of some kind, and then you have to talk about Minnesota where you’re going to for no reason.

Emily:  Strangers are a little easier because being abrupt doesn’t have the consequences of being abrupt to your roommate. You can just say, “Excuse me, I have to work.” But I think the complication here is the car – especially, the letter writer is driving. The letter writer is performing a service for the roommate. The letter writer can’t necessarily zone out. The letter writer has to pay attention to traffic and talking is one of the safer things you can do besides listening to the radio.

I really think, in that commuting situation, the roommate with the ear buds really is obligated to say, at a point when the conversation kind of trails out, “I’m just going to listen to some music now. If you want to turn on the radio, that’s fine. It won’t bother me.” Or “I just need to gather my thoughts for the day.”

You can’t just suddenly not be there mentally, but you’re still there physically.

Farahad:  That’s a good point. When you listen to your ear buds in the car, you’re preempting the car stereo. Maybe you’re listening to NPR or a podcast on your iPod, but the driver wants to listen to death metal. I think the driver of the car trumps the passenger with the iPod.

Emily:  Unless the passenger with the iPod is listening to Manners of the Digital Age, in which case, that trumps all.

Farhad: Of course! Then you should put that on on the car stereo, because everyone deserves to listen to it. It would be better if the person didn’t retreat into her own audio cocoon, and instead they came to a decision about what to listen to cooperatively. Maybe they could both listen to our show! That seems like a nicer thing to do.

Emily: One aspect of this could be if we heard from the letter writer’s roommate. She might be saying, “Look, he’s a great guy, but blah, blah, blah. I’m not a morning person. I’m under pressure all day long. I really appreciate on my commute that I can listen to music or stare out the window and not communicate. My God, do I have to say every morning ‘Leave me alone?’”

Farhad:  I work from home now, but when I used to have a commute, I used to love that time because it was a moment of solitude where I could read or listen to something and just be with myself and my thoughts. I’m generally not one for small talk anyway, so if I were with someone, I would feel constantly awkward. You feel like you have to talk about your day and your life and your relationships. It would just take you out of the bliss of the commute.

I can understand, by putting in the ear buds, to signal “I just want to be alone.”

Emily:  I think it’s easy enough to deal with, even if you’ve got one talker and one non-talker for the non-talker to say after a few minutes, “I just need to have this silent space. I hope you don’t mind. Please listen to the radio,” if you’re in the car, “or read. I’ve just got to gather my thoughts for the day.”

Once you announce that, then it allows you to say, “I’m going to put my ear buds in now.”

Farhad:  These people are roommates. I think that they’re probably close enough that one of them could say, “I love commuting with you, but let’s not talk. Just be quiet.”

Emily:  We agree that the roommate is being rude, but we’ve avoided the letter writer’s dilemma. Does the letter writer say something or just “Okay, my roommate is kind of rude, so we’ll be in the middle of discussing the deficit and she’s humming the lyrics to Queen songs all of a sudden. It’s a little disconcerting, but I don’t want to say anything.”

Or should the letter writer say something?

Farhad:  If the letter writer is a brave person, he would say something. If it were me, I sort of avoid conflict and I’d suggest that the roommate listen to this episode of the show and get the message that way.

Emily:  “Hey, roomie! I have a really interesting podcast for us to share and then discuss with your ear buds out.”

I guess our bottom line is the person who suddenly mentally zones out on you is rude. My feeling is, on the train, okay; you’ve got alternate forms of entertainment. But I think it’s fair enough in the car to say, “Why don’t we either talk or listen to music together?”

Farhad: Yeah. I guess I would stress announce that you’re going to put your ear buds in before you do so, because it’s rude not to.

Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is

Emily:  You can also join our Facebook page where we carry on the conversation throughout the week. Go to

Farhad:  And we’ll talk to you next time on Manners for the Digital Age.