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If I really need to concentrate for a short burst at work (say 30 minutes), I work best when under headphones. However I appreciate that by doing so I run the risk of appearing anti-social and unproductive.

To give a little context I’m talking about having music that isn’t loud enough to distract anyone else, and generally wearing only one headphone so I can still keep an ear out for anything I need to be aware of, and not all day but maybe one or two 20-30 minute slots during the day.

Is there anything I can do to make my wearing headphone(s) a bit more socially accepted?

As of now, no one in the office uses headphones, and I'm assuming any change to social norms will require integration. Headset I consider is iPhone earbuds. There isn't a policy as such but no one in the whole office (of about 200) uses headset.

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Where i work it is very common and most places I have been to have accepted it as well. What makes you think it is unacceptable? Is there a policy at work about them? Is it possible that your line of work creates the issue more than other lines? –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 7 '13 at 14:57
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@pdr - I am pre-empting one as no one in the office uses headphones, and I'm assuming any change to social norms will require integration! GreenMatt - iphone earbuds Chad - there isn't a policy as such but no one in the whole office (of about 200) uses them –  Dibstar Jan 7 '13 at 14:59
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@Dibstar - Have you asked your manager if it is ok to do so? I suspect you are imagining a problem that does not exist. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 7 '13 at 15:03
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I didn't think anyone on my team used headphones until I brought up listening to music. Asking never hurts. I wear them all day and no one is discouraged from interrupting me! –  Kryptic Jan 8 '13 at 13:58
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If you decide to cover both ears, please turn down your phone ringer. –  JeffO Feb 27 '13 at 14:45

7 Answers 7

up vote 21 down vote accepted

This is a good thing to be aware of, because you are right, in an office culture where 100% of people do anything - whether not wearing headphones, taking lunch at a certain time, wearing red polos, whatever - there is always a bit of a social weirdness which happens when someone breaks the mold.

I would recommend some simple conversations ahead of time:

  • Ask your manager something like, "I've noticed no one here really wears headphones when they work. I find I can focus much better when doing so - would this be problematic?"
  • If there are a lot of younger people at your workplace, I suspect many of them are wondering the same thing. Bringing this topic up with them (assuming you have some level of friendship) might cause a chain reaction
  • Briefly mention to your team they are free to interrupt you for work related but you are wearing them because they help you work, "hey guys, I think I'm going to be wearing headphones to help me work - I just want to let you know, feel free to interrupt me even if I'm wearing them"

I strongly suspect no one is going to actually care about this. But simply by informing others you can avoid a lot of the stigma.

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Very good answer. –  HLGEM Feb 27 '13 at 16:16
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@l19 If the OP feels the need to do this in the first place, I assume it's an open-plan office. In my experience, that's not "listening to music instead of working", but "listening to music versus filtering out noise around you". Personally, other people talking, keyboard noises, and worst of all various bodily noises or nervous tics (foot-tapping etc.) impair my productivity worse than suitable background music. –  millimoose Jan 8 at 19:18

I run the risk of appearing anti-social and unproductive.

At my workplace, headphones are generally a sign that the person is either a) doing online training courses (often required) or b) really needs to focus right now and shouldn't be bothered. Either situation is considered normal and not taken badly. So my advice would be to try it, maybe you can start a trend.

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I don't think this is a good answer, because currently no one out of 200 people wearing headphones in this office place. Changing something like this can cause social issues in this sort of situation (indeed, this is the entire reason the asker posted this as a question) but your answer doesn't address this at all. –  enderland Jan 7 '13 at 19:25

As per your comments, it seems that there's no real statement against the headphone usage. Instead, you're assuming it based on someone else's behavior.

Although there's a possibility that exists a (informal, maybe?) rule about it, you're not breaking any rule trying it. You may be following the 'monkeys' behavior, which is something fairly regular (and safe, depending on how comfortable you're in your company).

So, what's the problem on giving it a try and using it? If you're really afraid, drop a message to HR, saying something like look, I'm used to use headphones to focus on my work; please let me know if there's any complain or rule forbidden it.

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Whilst I fully agree that I wouldn't be breaking any rules by wearing them, I would argue that there is a world of difference between simply adhering to policy and actually being culturally aware enough to appear professional. That said I agree it's worth a go :) –  Dibstar Jan 8 '13 at 14:15

My solution to making headphones at work more acceptable has been to slightly change what we're calling 'headphones' here.

I bought a bluetooth earpiece (Samsung HM6450) with A2DP support so that I can play music from my iPhone through it. You mention generally only wearing one headphone anyway so this would work well for you but the particular model I mentioned also allows you to plug in a set of real earbuds for full stereo sound when you wish.

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You can give it a try and see what happens or just ask someone who's been around a little longer. Maybe it's a pet-peeve of one of the higher ups.

If there's no one there you feel comfortable asking this type of question, you have some bigger issues working at this company.

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If the real problem is that you'll be the first to do this, then you have to accept some (minor) consequences.

First, be careful of the type of headphones you use - in ear are fine, but if you need them to drown out noise do not get large ones that are open-backed... closed backs are good. Also be wary of ones that completely block sound - one day someone will prod you on the shoulder, wave in front of your face and say "answer your b****y phone" as you realise it's been ringing away and disturbing your colleagues.

Then the last thing, people will notice and one 'kind natured' type will interrupt you just for the sake of it, so be prepared to pull them out immediately and interact with the person, showing that the headphones are not a problem that will block communication with your colleagues.

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by doing so I run the risk of appearing anti-social and unproductive

Only if you are judged by appearance (rather than by results) - what is more important? If the company is results-oriented, you don't have to worry about such trivial things.

All you have to do (really) is to tell your teammates around you that you would/would not mind if they interrupt you while you are wearing your headphones; that's it, no need to ask HR, etc.

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