Headphone Defense

Posted March 3, 2014

Chances are, if you’ve lived in NYC for over three years, you know what the “Headphone Defense” is. You may not have used the words to describe it, but the action is all too familiar.

If you’ve had a crappy day and want to get home from work without incident; headphones in, block out the world.

You’re on the 6 train in the morning, packed in like sardines; headphones in, block out the world.

Being preached at before the sun rises? Headphones.

Construction worker commenting on your dress? Headphones (Or so I’m told).

The point is, whether it’s the most noble thing or not, we’ve all come to use our headphones as a defense mechanism. If you see somebody with headphones in, you almost instinctively know that they don’t want to be bothered. It’s become such a universal symbol that people in NYC almost always have headphones in, even if they’re in the middle of a conversation or reading a book. You just never know when you’re going to need to make use of the defense; you always need to have it at the ready.

While this defense is as much in my playbook as anybody else’s, I’ve begun to worry that its lasting effects might be worse than we anticipate. Like a pitcher who feels something in his arm and tries to “pitch through it,” or a quarterback who gets his bell rung and decides to play just one more series, we’ve slowly begun heading towards a future that might be worse than over-hearing a stranger’s complaints about juice cleanses.

A small, but significant, example of the consequence of the “Headphone Defense” occurred the other day. I got off the 6 train and started walking to the Downtown end of the station, headed for a specific exit. There were about four or five people walking just behind, or in front, of me, all silent, of course.

As we got halfway towards the exit, a group of people began walking past us in the other direction. They made no eye contact or offered no words. I was suspicious as to why they might have been walking away from an exit, but kept going (I had already come so far). However, when I, and my traveling cohort, finally reached the other exit, we found that it was locked, confirming my suspicions about the other group of passengers.

But then I started to get mad. These people had walked to the exit, seen that it was locked, and began walking to the other exit. They then saw six people walking to the exit they had just come from, clearly aware that we were trying to leave the station; yet, they said nothing.

How hard would it have been to give us a warning? It could have taken one word: “closed” (maybe combined with a small head gesture). They could have even given us the warning without turning down their music or taking out their headphones; their warning didn’t need a response. It would have just been a common sense moment of courtesy.

I know it seems like a bit of an over-reaction for a moment that probably only wasted two or three minutes of my day, but it wasn’t the extra steps that pissed me off so much as the blatant disregard for decency. I understand not wanting to barge into people’s lives or wanting them to interfere in yours. I sympathize with wanting to find some quiet moments in a life that seems to be exceedingly filled with noise and images. However, do we really have to do that at the expense of cutting out all basic human interaction? Has having actual conversations with normal people become so foreign that we just avoid it at all costs?

The Headphone Defense may seem like a simple act of carving out space for yourself in a chaotic world, but it slowly threatens to become the tip of a much bigger iceberg. If we use or technology to avoid contact with others, we might find some peace of mind, but we also might entirely forget how to treat people.

The only question is whether there is still time to stop it.