Superhuman Hearing and Killer Headphones

This may come as a surprise, but this American Taitai has quasi-superpowers.

I exaggerate because I can’t turn invisible.  However, I have been told repeatedly that I have excellent hearing and a good sense of smell.  And while my senses aren’t superhuman, they prove to be quite useful from time to time—particularly during non-emergency situations involving food.  My heightened hearing becomes especially handy at unfamiliar restaurants when eavesdropping on nearby diners is a necessary survival skill to note the exceptional (or bad) dishes.  My sense of smell helps to corroborate the overheard conversation with the aromas I’m picking up wafting through the air.

Basically I’m a really good eavesdropper and I can’t help it.

My scaredy-cat/easily freaked-out nature aside, I might have made a decent—albeit jumpy—secret agent.  I have a forgettable, non-descript Asian face, (I’ve lost count of the times strangers think they’ve met me before) and I’m quite adept at noticing details.

But my forte is unquestionably eavesdropping.  I’ve mastered my own “Mirror Technique” where rather than making direct eye contact towards my subjects, I use various mirrors on the walls to subtly spy what’s going on behind and around me via the reflections.  It’s a much more effective (creepy?) method in keeping my nosiness under wraps, provided wall mirrors are abundant in the café or restaurant I find myself in.  (Ceiling mirrors work too, but I always end up looking like a freak.)

Now I’m not proud to admit I’m a little too curious, and that I’ve seen more than my fair share of spy movies.  But this mini confession is necessary to illustrate a paradox with respect to my hearing.  While I do enjoy my gift, it comes at a price.  It’s both a blessing and a curse.  Excellent hearing goes hand-in-hand with the resultant inability to shut out all the Loud Annoying Talkers (LATs) in close proximity to my sensitive ears.  It’s often a piercing buzz that has no mute button, and I can’t help but hear everything.

Certain human vocal frequencies carry much further than others, and for whatever reason, the pitch of select human voices are just audibly annoying (think Gilbert Gottfried, Iago from Aladdin.)  I’m sure you’ve had the experience of being trapped in a conversation with someone who, for whatever reason, communicates with a grating and irritable voice.  It’s about as fun as listening to fingernails scraping a chalkboard.

Now I’m not sure if LATs are hard-of-hearing, tone-deaf, or just don’t understand what “inside voice” means.  This explains all the shouting.  And while I kind of feel sorry for the LATs, I mostly get frustrated and disgruntled, particularly when I’m the silent café customer minding my own business in the corner.

LATs are especially annoying in the myriad of quiet Seattle coffee shops where the majority of people are sitting alone, studiously working away on their laptops.  My solution to a potential earache is simple and universal: I always carry a set of headphones wherever I go, and plug in whenever I find myself next to someone a little too chatty.

I’m sure I’m not the only one out there.  (I’ve seen your dirty looks shot towards the poor clueless LATs too!)  When confronted with potential LATs in quiet cafés, my natural reaction is to sigh with annoyance and roll my eyes.  I know I’m in trouble when I see LATs (sans-laptops) cradling their tall lattes in ceramic cups as they make their way towards me, chatting away happily on their mobile phone.  On cue, I automatically pull out my headphones and plug in.  Otherwise, I run the risk of unwittingly and involuntarily eavesdropping on the mind-numbing conversation occurring next to me.

My headphones have become a personal security gate, ensuring that the sanctity of my “audio bubble of calm” remains sound.  I’ve begun to rely heavily on them and find myself cursing my forgetfulness during the few times I happen to be without them, particularly when seated next to an unfortunately chatty coffee house patron.

Coffee houses have a long historical tradition as centers of social interaction where people congregate to chat, read, and write.  One could argue that the coffee house was the birthplace of the Enlightenment, modern banking, insurance, and the modern encyclopedia.  And while my plugged in behavior is well within the norms of our new café society, it strikes me as sort of a strange new behavior, particularly for those of us who frequent coffee shops to write, think, and be productive.

Isn’t it ironic that we seek out some form of social interaction in public spaces, and yet insist on remaining undisturbed and alone?

MIT Professor and Psychologist Sherry Turkle delves into the headphone phenomena and the impact our technological connectivity has to relationshps and aloneness in her latest book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.  In her TED talk, she brings to light interesting social ramifications of our over plugged in lives.  She states how “we’re getting used to a new way of being alone together…  People want to customize their lives… because the thing that matters most to them is control over where they put their attention.”  She’s absolutely right.  I hate not having control over my attention, especially when I get distracted.

Her recent New York Times article, “The Flight From Conversation,” also perfectly summarizes what the new social norm looks like at your local café, library, and workplace:

Walking through a college library or the campus of a high-tech start-up, one sees the same thing: we are together, but each of us is in our own bubble, furiously connected to keyboards and tiny touch screens. A senior partner at a Boston law firm describes a scene in his office. Young associates lay out their suite of technologies: laptops, iPods and multiple phones. And then they put their earphones on. “Big ones. Like pilots. They turn their desks into cockpits.” With the young lawyers in their cockpits, the office is quiet, a quiet that does not ask to be broken.

I admit that I have had moments where I feel guilty when I’ve somehow upset the equilibrium of quiet in an environment.  I myself have also experienced unbridled headphone envy (Beats by Dr Dre… drool drool…) because I usually only have tiny earbuds on hand.  But more interestingly, I find that I now actually feel out of place if I’m at the café and just working on the laptop with my ears left naked.

This phenomena of headphones taking over the world isn’t just in coffee houses and cafés, but is becoming much more prevalent in the workplace.  Today’s work environment is dominated by open-plan office spaces, both in efforts to cut costs and to foster greater communication among workers.  The consequence of open floor plans is a major loss of privacy.

Naturally, to combat that loss of privacy, worker bees turn to giant headphones to regain some semblance of privacy and quiet so that they can concentrate while slaving for the man.  The resulting behavior is sometimes counterintuitive, with colleagues instant messaging each other rather than talking, despite sitting next to one another.  According to informal surveys in this HBR article, about half of workers aged 35 and under wear headphones about 50 percent of the time.  And I’m sure you’ve noticed the growing prevalence of headphones in your own work environments.

I totally sympathize with workers who require headphones to be productive.  In a land of zero privacy, it’s a handy, giant, non-verbal DO NOT DISTURB sign that is conveniently displayed to all your fellow colleagues.  You will be left alone in peace to concentrate and to get stuff done.

Much like the poor “anti-social employee” described at the end of this WSJ article stuck between the front door and a large conference room, in my former life, I also had a terrible seat on the trading floor… right next to the men’s bathroom.  Obviously this was also a high traffic area as the bathrooms were centralized for the entire (mostly male) trading floor.  In the short time I sat in that spot, I found that superhuman concentration was required to get anything done without headphones and constant wordless instrumental music piping through my ears.  Otherwise, I’d get distracted trying to figure out who had the smallest male bladder on the floor!

The open-plan office space has also come under some scrutiny, and a few firms have heard the rallying cry for more privacy.  Companies are seeking to redesign their offices to pipe in special background noise to cut down speech noise and to improve sound masking in offices.  Finnish researchers have even pinpointed exactly how far unwanted conversations carry, and analyzed their effect on the unwilling listener: a decline of 5 percent to 10 percent on the performance of cognitive tasks requiring efficient use of short-term memory, like reading, writing and other forms of creative work.

That’s right!  You could experience up to a 10 percent decline in completing cognitive tasks when distracted by someone else talking.  That’s annoying!  So the case for headphones seems totally justified in our workplaces, cafes, and libraries.  But there are also obvious downsides to donning headphones all the time.  They make us more anti-social.

And sometimes, headphones can even kill us.  As we groove to our customized commute soundtracks on iPods and iPhones, we just can’t hear what’s going on around us.  And this sensory depravation might just kill us.  A bus recently struck someone from DH’s office as she was crossing the street this winter in downtown Seattle.  Thankfully she was fine, but she was also listening to her iPod and couldn’t hear the bus approaching.

Incidents of pedestrians getting run over by motor vehicles are on the rise.  And that’s exactly what this University of Maryland study concludes as the number of headphone-wearing pedestrians seriously injured or killed near roadways and railways has tripled from 2004-2005 to 2010-2011.  The study also illustrates that the use of headphones with handheld devices may pose a safety risk to pedestrians, especially in environments with moving vehicles.  In this study, of the 116 cases, more than a third of the people were younger than age 18, and two-thirds were younger than age 30.

And if all these earphone-related accidents haven’t gotten your attention yet, the headphone phenomenon has reached as far as our bicycles.  Ridiculous as it sounds, I’ve personally witnessed crazy bikers with earphones plugged in here in Seattle and in Portland.  I’m pretty sure it’s illegal in Washington, as impaired hearing while operating a moving vehicle can be a major hazard to other bikers, pedestrians, and drivers for obvious reasons.  (Unless you spring for a pair of these biking headphones that transmit sound to your ear via your jawbone leaving your ears unplugged.)

Ok, so what are some simple conclusions we can draw about the growing headphone culture amidst our over plugged in society?  I can pretty much sum up my entire 2000 word argument into a simple two-word sentence: Be considerate.  For those of us who can’t live without our headphones, watch out for people trying to get our attention, and don’t wear them while we cross through busy intersections.  Be aware.  And don’t be a dumbass thinking you can ride your bike with your earphones plugged in.  You’ll end up hurting yourself or someone else.

And it’s the same conclusion for the LATs.  Be considerate.  Take your loud and annoying mobile phone conversation outside of the café.  You’ll stop getting evil death glances in your direction.  Find a table that’s further away from the café’s working masses, and learn to use your inside voice.

We can all learn to be more aware of, and considerate towards each other.  And maybe, just maybe we’ll also learn how to be a little more productive.  In the meantime, I’m hanging on to my headphones in the cafe, but you won’t catch me wearing them when I’m out walking!

Be aware of what’s going on around you.  Simple right?