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The Good Listener: When Is It OK To Wear Headphones In Public?

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the monthly bale of sunflower seeds we've decided to order from Amazon Prime via subscription is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, a request for advice on when and where it's courteous to wear headphones in public.

Brian Bowen writes via Facebook: "When is it OK to wear headphones in public — in transit, at work, during events large or small, standing in line at the post office, etc.?"

As a society, we're all supposed to be horrified by the way we've come to close ourselves off from the world around us: by staring at phones instead of sunsets, by tweeting overheard conversations instead of having them ourselves, by pawing at screens during every spare nanosecond of downtime. I get that, and I've made many mental notes and resolutions to be more present when interacting with my fellow human beings. To me, the best rule of thumb is to choose the events for which it's necessary and courteous to be mentally present — social events, meetings, the dinner table, any place people gather to converse or be entertained — and put the headphones away.

But we're also allowed, every now and then, to provide ourselves with enforced alone time — to put up barriers that shut out distractions, make ourselves appear less approachable to strangers, and close off the world outside our own heads. If you're in line at the post office, provided you're not blaring music at a volume that bleeds out to within earshot of someone trying to enjoy silence, you should wear headphones without a nano-modicum of guilt. Same goes for walking from place to place, working out at the gym, riding public transportation, or buying groceries. (As a general rule, the only people who'll give you grief for wearing headphones in those situations are the same ones looking to barge in on your solitude, whether they're asking you for your number or handing you pamphlets. Phooey on them.)

The gray areas are places where courtesy — or office policy — dictates that you be available to engage with and/or listen to others. I wear sound-dampening headphones at work quite a lot, because I listen to music as part of my job and am often writing or editing at my desk; those tasks require that I find a way to tune out whatever racket Bob Boilen is making at a given moment. People keep sending that guy sleigh bells and other noisemakers, presumably as a social experiment to determine the boundaries of my sanity, and hitting deadlines necessitates drowning out the din.

Now, obviously that's not possible at every job, and your own methods may vary. But if you're in a situation where you need or deserve to be left alone? Have at it.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at or tweet @allsongs.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)