Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

Tuning them out and turning on them

headphonesSAFETY EXPERTS recommend not wearing earphones when out cycling or running alone in a sketchy area because you’re at greater risk of getting run over or being attacked.

While that may be the case, I’d love to see a study about the dangers of the reverse—how wearing headphones might make you more likely to run someone over or attack them, at least metaphorically.

See, I suspect that the trend of plugging in and tuning out as we go about our day may somehow be connected to our increasingly combative culture, so clearly evidenced in the unpleasant recent presidential election campaign.

While many people wear headphones as “the front line of urban social defense,” to give themselves some private space in a busy world, according to a recent New York Times article, I can’t help wondering if doing so doesn’t actually encourage people to go on the offensive.

At one level, we’re literally switching off to those around us. A few years ago, the Harvard Business Review reported about Cal State Sacramento professors looking into how employee isolation—in part due to increased earphone use—left people feeling less connected to coworkers. They were also more likely to “experience a lack of belongingness… thus decreasing their effective commitment to their organizations.”

If that’s true for our 9-to-5 office existence, what about the rest of life out in the wider world? More recently, a scientist with the US National Park Service has suggested that constant earphone wearing could create “generational amnesia” among young people, who are also missing out on the natural calming effects of birds singing or running water.

All that’s bad enough, but I wonder whether the damage goes further. What if wearing earphones doesn’t just turn us off from others, but turns us against them?

Listening to podcasts and audiobooks turns our attention inward, while music can in some ways turn it out: our private soundtrack makes us the stars of our own movie, with everyone else around an extra, if not the villain. The people we pass become bit players in our plot.

Consider Michael Phelps’ famous pre-race scowl caught before one of his swims at the Rio Olympics. You may recall Phelps was snapped glaring at South African swimmer Chad le Clos’s warm-up, later admitting that he had rapper Future’s “Stick Talk” cranked up on his headphones. The lyrics? Here’s a sample:

They came through with a stick and you heard it
They came through in this b**** and they were swerving
I can’t believe the blood ain’t on my shirt…

We be talking lick talk, and I’mma f*** your b**** too

This may be motivating for an athlete, but I’d hate to accidentally bump into someone who had it blaring in their ears when I walked down the street at night. Their private-world score might frame me unsuspectingly as a villain.

Photo credit: tomswift46 via Foter.com/CC BY-NC-ND

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