In which I have a breakthrough in music-without-headphones-in-public etiquette

Put those headphones on!

You guys. I figured it out. Last night on the bus a woman sat in front of me and was trying to listen to a audio of Fun Home on her phone, without headphones. For the record, I’d estimate she was in her 40s or 50s, so shut up about millennials. She held the phone’s speaker directly to hear ear, but everyone within about 15 feet could hear the audio.

A younger man leaned across the bus aisle and asked if the audio was coming from her, and when she confirmed, he asked her to shut it off. She did, but rolled her eyes, and gestured to my husband and I that that man must be the unreasonable one. “I can’t believe him,” she said. “Well,” I said, “generally you should be using headphones for that.” She responded “If I have to hold it up to my ear I don’t think anyone else can hear it.”


I sort of refused to make eye contact for the next two stops as she continued to grumble, but my mind was racing. This is the problem! I sort of understand it. I’m extremely guilty of eating/crying/picking dead skin off my lips on the subway, assuming no one outside of my personal bubble is aware of my actions. It’s easy (maybe) to see how that attitude can extend to noise. So let us make it perfectly clear in case you were operating under this assumption: everyone can hear you, cut it out.

Musing On Future Etiquette: Music With No Headphones

Ahhh, those were the days

I really don’t want to think listening to music in public with no headphones (and not in the carrying around a boombox in the park style, I mean blasting music out of your iPhone in a crowded subway) is going to be a thing, but all signs are pointing to it being a thing. Over the past few years I’ve increasingly encountered people playing loud video games, having FaceTime conversations, or listening to music without headphones, and at this point I believe it’s just something we’ll have to deal with. There’s a silver lining though: A BRAVE NEW WORLD OF ETIQUETTE.

Let’s say you’re sitting on the bus, listening to the Hamilton cast recording (like we have been for the last two weeks) with no headphones. Someone comes on the bus listening to another song at a similar volume, and sits next to you. Who is in the position of power here? On one hand, you can say you were there first, and thus deserve to continue listening to your music while the other person has to turn theirs down. On the other, perhaps the rules should go by turns. You had your time, and now this person has theirs.

I hope it will continue to stand that, if someone asks you to turn your music down or to put on headphones, you will. After all, it is still against the rules on most forms of public transportation or in public areas to play amplified music without a permit. But as much as etiquette is about comfort and being a social lubricant and all that, I also think it’s about having some sort of guidelines for everyday behaviors, and those change often. Fifty years ago pulling out your phone during dinner would be incredibly impolite (largely because you shouldn’t flaunt technology you got via your time machine like that), but now we understand that sometimes it happens, and there are polite and impolite ways to check your email with company. Things change, and etiquette needs to change with them.

But also, please use headphones when listening to music in public.