Users

Go Ahead, Listen to Podcasts at the Dentist

And in the spa. And in the supermarket checkout line. And while giving blood. And …

A dentist presents a patient with headphones.
Why not?
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by OcusFocus/Thinkstock.

When you become a podcast person, a few things happen quickly. You start sentences with phrases like, “Well, I heard on a podcast that …” You start feeling that you know, like really know, Ira, Terry, Michael, Heben, Tracy, and the rest of the people living inside your phone. And you start rearranging your life so you can listen at Every. Possible. Second.

So you start testing the limits. Maybe instead of hitting stop once you get to the office, you leave the podcast running until you physically sit down at your desk. You dispense with the theater of removing one earbud at the checkout counter. Eventually, you think, Hey, can I get away with listening while I’m getting my nails done? Before you know it, you’ve got yourself convinced that asking your yoga instructor to play Chapo Trap House during class instead of whatever chanty music she picked out would basically be a public service.

Podcasts: Have they turned us into monsters? Is it rude to listen to them at the dentist or anywhere else where you used to interact with, you know, people? What about while getting a massage or some acupuncture? Is it awkward to have to explain to the person who’s providing a service, “Hey, there’s thing called a podcast, and I want to listen to it instead of talk to you”? Talk to enough members of the pod-anywhere set, and it starts to look like on-demand audio has blown a big hole in our social norms.

For one thing, I quickly discovered that the dentist scenario, which had been purely hypothetical in my mind, is a fairly ho-hum practice for many podcast listeners. “If I didn’t listen at places like the dentist, I wouldn’t get to listen to all of them,” said Sharon Schwemin, a retired federal employee who lives in Ellicott City, Maryland. “Sometimes I sort of make myself nuts because I feel like, ‘Oh my God, I have so many I have to listen to. How am I going to manage to get them all in?’ I feel guilty if I delete one.”

I found podcast listeners who partake while donating blood. While getting eyelash extensions. Even while getting chemo. One guy told me he once listened to a podcast while … recording a different podcast. The listener/podcaster in question is Chris Iozzi, who works in sales in Rhode Island. He explained that he wanted to quote another show in the episode of his gaming podcast he was recording, so he put it on in the background … and well, anyway, “It occurred to me how silly that was,” he said.

Adults are listening to more and more podcasts, and audiobooks are enjoying a resurgence as well. In order to get to their podcast backlog, some people listen to podcasts superfast. Some listen enough to rival their full-time jobs. But while it may seem intuitively off limits, there’s no actual rule that says you can’t do those things and listen in weird places, too. In this era of peak content, this might just be everyday multitasking.

“Any time that I used to take to read a book is now the time that I take to listen to podcasts, which is terrible, because it means I’m reading so many less books than I used to,” Sarah Steel, who works in video production in Sydney, told me. She’s the one who copped to listening while donating blood. (It takes 45 minutes! And more if you donate plasma.) “There’s so many podcasts now that I can’t wait to keep listening to them that I’ve started listening in any downtimes that I have. I guess I became a bit of an addict.”

So why not cue up a pod in the dentist’s chair?

“You know that awful feeling when you’re having your teeth fully cleaned and they’re scraping around the gum line and the whole thing is traumatizing? I’ve found it’s a brilliant solution,” said Cate Watt, who works for the provincial government in Edmonton, Alberta.

“Anything to distract me from the sound of the cleaning implements,” Kathy Young, an attorney in Denver, said. She’s also the one who has listened while getting her lashes done. (“Although I’ve stopped doing it because even with podcasts, it’s still a huge waste of time and money.”)

Dentists, for their part, don’t seem to mind.

Ruchi Sahota, a dentist in Fremont, California, and a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association, said that podcasts are “absolutely OK. Whatever helps [patients] feel comfortable is OK with me.” She added that she does sound checks with patients before getting started to make sure they can hear her over whatever they’re listening to. Distraction for the purposes of patient comfort—“This is definitely something that a lot of dentists are thinking about.”

Alan Mead, a dentist in Midland, Michigan, is the host of not one but two dental-themed podcasts. “I think it’s great, particularly if they’re anxious,” he said of dental patients donning headphones. “We’re famous for making horrible sounds in their heads, so I think anything that will take away from that so they can relax into the experience is great.” Mead once had someone listen to one of his own podcasts while he was attending to the patient. “I think someone did it once just to tease me,” he said. “That’s a very meta situation.”

Jennifer Plotnick, dubbed Brooklyn’s “hipster dentist” by New York magazine, not only supports podcast listening during cleanings but is so pro-distraction that she has tricked out her office with TV screens equipped with Netflix and other streaming services attached to each chair, and she provides each patient with a set of Bluetooth headphones. She’s also developed her own set of hand signals for patients to use during visits, so they don’t have to worry about missing anything or having to pause. “If I’m working in somebody’s mouth, they really can’t communicate with me by talking anyway,” Plotnick said.

So dentists clearly aren’t worried that their rapport with patients will suffer. Once you start listening in one place where people don’t usually listen, though, the possibilities only open up further. “I went in for allergy testing” recently, Steel told me. “They put all the little dabs of the different types of allergens on both of your arms in segments. I had about 23 different types. And they leave them for 20 minutes to see how your body reacts to them. I put on a podcast for that period for sure.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if when I go in to get my next tattoo I would also be listening to a podcast,” Steel added.

Not every medical procedure is fair game, at least yet. “I’ve had a couple MRIs lately because I just had a rotator cuff surgery,” said Meg Wittenmyer, a dairy goat farmer and cheesemaker in Boyceville, Wisconsin. “They let me put on headphones and could play different kinds of music, but it would have been really nice if I could have listened to a podcast while I was in the MRI machine.”

Christine Croft, who listens while getting cancer treatment, has wondered from time to time about her podcast habit. “Maybe it is odd that I do that, because nobody else in my chemo suite does it.” Ultimately, she decided it’s OK: “I get a huge needle once a month, and it takes my mind completely off that needle coming.”

Though she feels fine about listening to a podcast during these treatments, Croft wouldn’t, for example, listen during a manicure. “It would be offensive. You might end up with a bad nail job or a bad haircut. I think they’d take it as standoffish.” Similarly, not everyone is on board for the pod-all-the-time life.

“I kind of wish I had the confidence to do that,” said Sinead Hernon, a stay-at-home mother and podcast fan—she said she listens to about 30 shows a week—in Dublin. “The traditionalist in me, it strikes me as a little bit rude. Even asking, it’s kind of presumptuous that person is not worth your attention, particularly in service industries.” Her dentist is pretty nice, but even so, “I don’t think I could ask to ignore her like that.”

Watt began to rethink her own habits as she was speaking to me. “If I’m going to a checkout—I do think I’m rude for doing this, but I do it anyway—I often don’t turn my podcast off,” she said. “And so I will be listening to it as the person is ringing though my purchases, and I’ll sort of pretend to have a conversation. It’s formulaic, I know what’s going to come—‘Hey, how are you doing?’ ‘How’s your day?’—so I just say the thing that’s … appropriate, whereas I’m not actually paying any attention to the conversation. I’m mostly just listening to the podcast because I don’t want to lose track of it.”

Listening to a podcast isn’t allowed at Heyday, a chain of facial parlors in New York. Heyday facialists talk clients through what they’re doing and want to make sure it’s not uncomfortable for them, Michael Pollak, Heyday’s chief brand officer, told me in an email. Headphones could get damaged by products they use, he added. “We say save the podcast for the subway ride home,” he said. But he also demonstrated an understanding that having something to listen to during a treatment can be crucial. Heyday’s playlists contain none of those “weird spa whale noises,” he promised.

Iozzi confessed that he sometimes finds himself listening to podcasts instead of talking to his family. “Much to my wife’s chagrin, I have an earbud in and I’m listening while she’s trying to talk to me about stuff. I get a bit distracted,” he said. “She’s like, ‘Did you even hear anything I said?’ ”

Maybe it makes a difference how well you know the person you’re with? Whether you’re in a big city or a small town where you’re likely to know your hairdresser and your masseuse and your acupuncturist? I posed these questions to Daniel Post Senning of the Emily Post Institute. His verdict? “I do think it’s OK, but like so many things, I think a lot has to do with how you handle it,” Senning Post said.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily impolite,” he went on. “I do think you want to take the time to acknowledge people. I think greetings and partings are important.” This means taking the time to explain before you lie down for your facial or lean back for your cleaning exactly what it is that you’re doing and that it’s quite all right to interrupt you. Pretty reasonable, right?

“I also tell people that it’s worth investing in relationships,” Senning Post said. “If you’re getting to know someone for the first time and it matters that there’s some interaction so that you get the service right … these devices can build walls around us. It’s important to practice the skill of empathy.” Especially when empathy increases the chances of your hair, nails, or teeth not getting messed up by someone who’s taken offense.

For now, this is almost certainly a niche phenomenon. Is anyone beyond a few podcast obsessives really trying to fit in episodes at the salon? Should someone want to listen to a podcast while getting a haircut, “I wouldn’t mind at all,” Andrea Kuhn, a hairdresser in Hays, Kansas, told me. But she added, “I’ve never had anyone ask. I don’t really hear of people listening to podcasts a lot out here.”

Still, on the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got people like Wittenmyer. If her dentist ix-nayed her podcasts, she said, that would be that. “I would definitely go to another dentist.” Rude? Maybe. But her way, both her teeth and her ears come out winners.

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Heather Schwedel

Heather Schwedel is a Slate staff writer.