Seven Reasons You Should Take Your Damn Headphones Off Downtown

I spend a lot of time downtown, walking the streets and taking public transit. I have an unusual policy for someone of my generation. I take out the earbuds and stow my iPod when I head into town. In no particular order, here are seven reasons to curtail your personal listening pleasure when you take to the streets.

1)      Look at those creatures around you. They’re called other human beings.

When I’m at the bus stop or waiting in line somewhere downtown, there are times that I wish I could compliment someone’s shoes, ask when the next bus is coming, or have company for a chuckle over a particularly bold pigeon. But people’s ears are blocked and they’re staring dreamily at nothing. I don’t exist.

My only friend?

2)      Deter crime.

I have a sneaking suspicion that bouncing along to private music makes you less aware of your surroundings. At about 8:45am on a sunny, crowded weekday morning in center city Philadelphia, three blocks from City Hall, I once saw a man come up behind a young woman at my regular bus stop and grab her purse. She splattered hot coffee all over herself when she hung onto it, and the snatcher fled. I don’t remember if the woman was wearing headphones at that moment, but if you were the robber, whose bag would you go for? The person whose ears are blocked? Or the person who is paying attention to her surroundings?

3)      Help your fellow man.

Perhaps, being such a historic town, Philadelphia has more than the usual share of disoriented suburbanite families. And they all ask me for directions. Every day, I watch someone swim through the crowd to stop me for help. Perhaps I just look like I know my way around. Perhaps as a young woman I’m non-threatening. Perhaps my former life as a tour guide means I’ve got that ask-me vibe. Or maybe it’s because I’m the only person on the whole block who’s not wearing headphones. So turn off the iPod for awhile and see if you can help someone out.

4)      Remain cognizant of your bodily emissions.

During my stint working for a museum, I noticed a peculiar phenomenon among visitors who donned headset tours. Once their hearing was dulled by the headphones, men and women alike farted with abandon. They were like toddlers who think no-one can see them if they cover their eyes. Just because you can’t hear it doesn’t mean others can’t.

5)      Be a decent parent.

I hate to impugn anyone’s parenting style, especially since I don’t have kids myself. But something irks me about seeing parents shepherding their kids around the city while the parents’ ears are plugged with a phone or iPod earpieces. First of all, it seems like a safety issue to me. Is it like letting your kids out of earshot if you’re listening to headphones when you should be paying attention to them?  Secondly, don’t kids deserve some courtesy? I don’t don headsets when I travel or walk with a friend or family member – that would seem rude. Why would I do it to my kid? Perhaps parents wouldn’t be so quick to curse at or smack restless kids if they tuned out their phones and music for awhile and tuned into their kids’ needs.

6)      Have a hand in your own safety.

Yes, you can be the master of your own fate – by not stepping out in front of speeding bicycles, skateboards, cars and buses because you don’t know what the hell is going on around you. Once I watched a blind man, as evidenced by his white cane, cross one of the widest, busiest intersections in the whole city while listening to his iPod. Perhaps this observation is inappropriate and insensitive to people who are blind. But for God’s sake, if you can’t see, why would you compromise your hearing when crossing the street? I’m pleading with everyone, sighted or not: employ your ears when you step off the curb.

7)      Don’t lose your stuff.

Contrary to popular belief, there are good people left in the world, but you can’t hear them trying to help you because you won’t stir a step without your damned headphones. This week something fell out of a young man’s backpack on the train platform. I grabbed it and hollered after him. “Hey! Hey, you with the backpack! Hey! You dropped something!” He stopped about twenty feet away and peered down the tracks, completely oblivious in his iPod headphones. His train pulled in and as he turned to board, I ran after him. I reached him at the last minute and he finally turned around when I poked him in the back. The day before that, I stood up when the bus reached my stop, but the lady who had been sitting next to me noticed my hat, which had fallen under the seat, and yelped at me before I stepped out. If I had been wearing my headphones, the bus would probably have rolled away by the time I realized I’d lost my hat.

Maybe you think I’m wrong, and headphones are the only thing that make the city bearable. Or maybe you have your own reasons for leaving the headphones off for awhile – care to share?

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6 Comments

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  1. You are exactly right. Technology that was supposed to bring us together is instead serving to isolate us further. Great post

  2. This reminded me of a TED talk I was listening to recently. (see below) The speaker said (at about 3:10 minutes in) “the technologies that are good at creating conversations are no good at creating groups, and the technologies that are good at creating groups are no good at creating conversations.” The technology of portable listening does not appear to be good at either.

    That said, I do drive around all day delivering the mail and listening on my ipod. I do this because without it there is only the noise of my own thoughts in my head, and that is not good for me or anyone else.

    Link to the TED talk: http://blog.ted.com/2009/06/16/clay_shirky_how/

    • Sometimes I think I couldn’t write without a certain iPod playlist, so I understand the workday applications.

      One thing I read awhile ago about personal listening devices really struck me. Before the advent of recording, unless you were playing a musical instrument for your own self, listening to music was never something you’d do alone – there would always be at least you and the musicians, and more likely a whole audience. How does this change our perception of music, when listening to it becomes mostly a solitary activity?

  3. This is something I struggle with myself. I’m obsessed with music, so I listen mostly because I’m always listening to something I can’t get enough of. The other thing is that public transit, at least where I take it, is very loud. People are having loud conversations, babies are screaming or I can hear someone else’s music. And yet, I know for most people it’s just a tactic to avoid communication because people are so awkward in the city. I’m completely torn on this but every point you make is completely valid! We should be more mindful of this.

    • True, public transit is very loud. Since I don’t have super-expensive noise-cancelling headphones, my iPod does not completely block the sounds around me, so if someone is crying or shouting, it does filter through, and then I’m on even more sensory overload, with that plus the music.

      Thanks as always for reading and for your comments.

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