I work as a software engineer at a startup with an open office. We have a Bluetooth speaker that blares "cool tunes, bro" all day, people hold loud meetings or non-work-related conversations anywhere, and it's very difficult to focus on serious engineering problems. I want to start wearing earplugs, but I am wondering:

  1. If that will be odd or out-of-place (no one currently wears earplugs).
  2. What I should say when people ask me why I'm wearing earplugs.

People wear headphones somewhat frequently (which, given that they're playing over other noise, can't be good for their ears), but that implies "I want to listen to something specific", not "I don't want to hear all of you". I don't want to imply that I'm a bad culture fit or not a team player, since I like having income.

  • 3
    I find most people have pretty standard reasons in their mind as to why someone would wear headphones and usually just won't ask. For some it's to reduce distraction, or maybe others just want to listen to their own music. I wouldn't worry about it, especially in software.
    – pay
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 13:24
  • 10
    You can ask to lower the volume on the speaker. However consider investing in noise cancelling head phones. They're pricey but you don't have to listen to anything with them on, and you can simply activate the noise cancellation function. This way you'll look inconspicuous to everyone else.
    – Dan
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 15:05
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    If you're really paranoid about people seeing you wear earplugs, you could just wear the earplugs underneath headphones and not play any music. (Or if you want it to be really silent wear the earplugs under noise cancelling headphones.) But I don't think wearing earplugs is that big a deal anyway. People understand that it's common to need silence to concentrate. Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 16:43
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    We have a Bluetooth speaker that blares "cool tunes, bro" all day -- ICK! Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 3:34
  • 1
    @KeithThompson aye, a sure way to drive one mad, that is
    – rath
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 9:31

5 Answers 5


Just say you find the speaker distracting. Generally, people won't inquire any further. Coming to work to do work is not out of the ordinary so they'll see the speaker as the problem before you.

You can also wear noise cancelling headphones rather than earplugs as if someone wants your attention they will make themselves visible rather than audible and this applies to those wearing all headphones so you won't stick out if that is your concern.

As a personal addition, I work at a tech startup and the guy across from me wears earplugs in an open office that's generally silent but for the sound of clicking keys and no-one has ever asked him why. People generally don't pry into that sort of thing in my experience, especially as there are many medical conditions that necessitate earplugs (tinnitus being an example I suffer from) and that is considered too personal for most workplaces.

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    In an office setting, the headphones are generally better as the person addressing you knows that you won't be able to hear them, as opposed to earplugs which they may not see. Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 13:37
  • "so they'll see the speaker as the problem before you." - I think this depends on office culture. They might see him as not a team player if he's constantly requesting things to be turned off that doesn't seem to bother anyone else. That could hurt him down the line in terms of promotion and general likability.
    – Dan
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 15:07
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    True, that's why I didn't suggest he turn it off. I don't think they'd feel that way unless he was inflicting his opinion on others. By making the change to himself I think that puts him above the criticism of not being a team player although I still regard headphones as the better option.
    – 34587
    Commented Sep 27, 2016 at 15:13
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    Noise cancelling headphones cancel only the white noise. They actually make you hear other people talking better. There is a known lifehack to use noise cancelling headphones in airports/ train stations to cancel out the background noise to hear the announcer more clearly.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Sep 28, 2016 at 13:46
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    @nick012000 active noise cancelling needs to be able to send soundwaves which cancels out the incoming waves. If the noise becomes harder to predict then that leaves less time to do so - for this reason they are better at blocking a constant noise. While language is generally not predictable noise. So it is relatively universal (and does not depend on the headphones) that they will block out humming background noise more than language.
    – Felix B.
    Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 10:12

Start ups in software often try all sorts of weird things. Seeing someone wearing ear plugs in a noisy environment may well be seen as sanity.

When the start up start getting customers, the other departments will start to take the work a bit more seriously.


Just ask. Otherwise you'll never know if you're the only person affected by noise. In our office, we had a Sonos system playing music (we could all affect the playlists). I can't remember the last time it was used, because I know that my choice in music won't match the other people, and vice-versa. We also had a foosball table in the office - but some people spoke up and said that it was distracting, so now it has an office all of it's own.

If you ask, you may find other people have the same issue. If not, then a good set of sound-cancelling headphones is worth the investment.


There are headphones that act as earplugs, if you're worried you'd look out of place or people wouldn't notice you have earplugs in then this might be a solution. They are more obvious than real earplugs and people would just assume you're listening to music so you wouldn't look out of place.



You could also wear overear headphones but underneath that earplugs.
You look normal and the headphones dim the sound a bit too.

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