When we wear headphones, it is a signal to everyone that we’re shut off, unavailable and, much like napping adults, absolutely not to be bothered. Our ear shields are barriers against barbaric city attacks like catcalls, construction or unwanted conversation from a friendly co-worker who has, like, a super quick question “if you just have two seconds.”
We’re commuting, running errands and running departments under the polite assumption that no one knows our secret (and apologies to anyone this is outing): the headphones are on, but nothing’s playing. Bye bye, “This American Life.” The podcasts and the music have died, and this’ll be the day that we acknowledge the lie.
Basheer Bergus, a 28-year-old associate director at a digital marketing firm in New York, said that he “definitely” uses headphones at work without any sound coming through. Like most of us, he uses them as a privacy screen. And if he sees someone whom he wants nothing to do with, he throws on his huge wireless Sennheiser cans — a sign that says “Silence, please.”
In a workplace where open floor plans are becoming increasingly standard, so is Mr. Bergus’s technique. Long gone are cubicle walls that, at the very least, required a polite knock on the padded Formica. Doors, bless them, have mostly joined fax machines and fountain pens in the office afterlife.
Short of building a fort around our desks using empty shipping boxes and half-functioning umbrellas, headphones are the only “Do Not Disturb” signs we have left.
Hailey Hayman, a 24-year-old marketing manager at a Brooklyn company that makes sustainable party goods, said that she feels “too exposed” when she doesn’t wear headphones at the office.
When she has them on, she feels as if she’s “inside a more secluded space,” she said. “Without headphones on, I’m too likely to get distracted listening to other people’s conversations or distracting other people with my own conversation.”
“I definitely wear headphones so people don’t bother me,” said Mary Sollosi, a 25-year-old freelance writer based in Los Angeles. And what happens when she’s approached by individuals who haven’t yet gotten the memo about what headphones really mean? “I make a big show of taking out one earbud and asking them to repeat what they said,” she said, “maintaining the charade that I was actively listening and am very surprised by the sudden interruption.”
I hesitated to ask my own co-workers at the website Bustle about the silent armor. Rosanne Salvatore sits two feet across from me at work. Could she, a person I communicate with all day, be tuning me out? “There are times when I will go hours wearing headphones with no music playing,” she said. “I get a lot of satisfaction when I realize I’m doing it, and no one realizes I’m doing it.”
Kara McGrath, another co-worker, said, “I’m only listening to anything about 30 percent of the total time.” Ouch, guys.
But I do it, too.
Our collective quest for privacy sometimes reaches comedic levels: Pierce Crosby, 25, once witnessed a man talking into his headphones at a Midtown cafe, despite the disconnected wire dangling below the man’s chair. “It was quite interesting,” he said, “and I took my time pretending to text while listening in on his conversation.”
If we’re all pretending to be listening to something and go about performing these small improvisational acts (a dramatic earbud removal here, a “What’s that? Oh, I didn’t hear you” there, complete with near-audible eye roll), then what is actually going on?
Our private pretense may actually have positive benefits. “While putting headphones in your ears is not an act of mindfulness itself, putting in headphones is setting the conditions for you to meditate without being disturbed,” said Lodro Rinzler, a co-founder of Mndfl, a meditation studio in New York City. He recommends using headphones without music if doing so helps create a quiet environment.
Ethan Nichtern, a senior teacher of Shambhala meditation and the author of “The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path,” said “putting headphones in without music could definitely make you more attentive to yourself internally.”
Chelsea Gavin Lowry, a doctor of audiology at the Tarrytown Hearing Center in Tarrytown, N.Y., is familiar with the practice of wearing silent headphones — her husband does it on his commute. “They may be helpful in protecting our ears from excessively loud noises in our environment,” she said. Because there is no research to suggest that simply wearing headphones without sound causes damage, no harm, no foul. Just, you know, clean the things once in a while.
For Steve Savage, a musician living in Brooklyn, wearing headphones with nothing playing is an eavesdropping mechanism. “I think it’s fun to take advantage of people’s assumption that I can’t hear them,” he said. “Sometimes, I’ll even bob my head or tap my hands to really ham up the illusion.”
Amid all of us liars, ignorers and (who knows) maybe even mindful fakers, could there still be a person out there who uses headphones for their intended purpose?
Jeremy Smith, 36, a web developer living in Brooklyn said that he has never intentionally worn headphones without music or a podcast playing.
“Sounds like a good idea, though,” he said. “Maybe I will start.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the age of Mary Sollosi. She is 25, not 28.