Digital Manners: I Can Hear Your Music Through Your Headphones (Transcript)

Navigating the intersection of etiquette and technology.
Dec. 27 2011 11:35 AM

You With the Earbuds, Turn It Down! (Transcript)

What to do when you're trapped next to someone whose music is bleeding out from their earbuds? Plus, should there be a time limit at the Redbox machine?

Emily Yoffe: Hey, you with the ear buds, turn it down!

Farhad Manjoo: I’m Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo.

Emily: I’m Emily Yoffe, Slate’s Dear Prudence advice columnist. And this is Manners for the Digital Age.

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Farhad: Today’s questions (that’s right – we have two questions today) are both about the power of one person to unwittingly irritate the rest of us. Our first letter writer has a problem with people who take their sweet time at those DVD machines. “Dear Emily and Farhad, I have a peeve with people who stand at the Redbox and browse titles reading every possible film summary, seemingly unaware of the growing line forming behind them of people who either have something quick to return or who have made reservation to pick up, or are just frankly more decisive. Should there be a maximum time limit on Redbox browsing?”

Emily: A second listener writes, “Dear Farhad and Emily, oftentimes I will find myself on the subway near a young person who is listening to music on their ear buds, but it is so loud that I can clearly hear it. I become concerned about their hearing, but more so annoyed by the sound. Is it rude for such a person to listen to music at that volume?”

Farhad: Let’s talk about Redbox first. Emily, are you the sort of person who either doesn’t notice the line forming behind you or doesn’t care – or do you even use Redbox?

Emily: First of all, I think we should explain what Redbox is maybe for people who have never used one, which I never have. Correct me I’m wrong, Farhad. It’s the machine. I’ve only seen it at the supermarket. It’s got DVDs inside and you rent them and return titles.

Farhad: Yeah. It’s a DVD vending machine. That’s basically what it is.

Emily: It’s a self-contained Blockbuster.

Farhad: Yes.

Emily: I’m the kind of person who’s annoyed about everything. When I go to an ice cream store, I don’t even try the flavors. I just go in and make up my mind. I just can’t stand samplers. You have to be very aware there are people behind you.

Farhad: It sounds like you’re harsher about this than I am. I think that if you notice someone is behind you, you should start to limit your time there and, say, give yourself a three-minute time limit. Usually I notice there’s no one in line at those things, or maybe there’s one person using it and you’re waiting behind one person. It’s not like the line is ten deep. So you don’t have to worry about it.

I think that if you are undecided about the movie and then you see someone come behind you, you should say, “Hey, are you just returning that movie? You can pop in ahead of me and then I’ll continue searching after you.”

Emily: Okay. But the problem is, of course, that the person who’s all involved in trying every ice cream flavor or looking at every movie title is just absorbed in his or her own choices and doesn’t notice or care. So then the onus is put on the people in the line.

I agree with you about the three-minute limit. If you stand up there, give the person three minutes to complete their perusal, then I think it’s perfectly fine to say, “Excuse me, if you don’t mind, I just need to return this,” or “I know what I’m going to order. Could I just step in in front of you and do this and then you can get back to your browsing?” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. The person is being rude not to be aware that you’re hanging people up.

Farhad: Right. And the movies they store at Redbox are basically the…

Emily: Dregs?

Farhad: Well, it’s new releases. It’s kind of the lowest common denominator fare. It’s not art house movies. It’s not something that you have to do a lot of deep research. You basically know by looking at the cover whether you want to watch it or not.

Emily: So you’re kind of deciding between which Adam Sandler movie do I want to spend my evening on?

Farhad: Yeah.

Emily: If you’re the person behind in line, you could say, “Oh, don’t rent the move where Adam Sandler is twins. Rent the one where he’s pretending to be married to Jennifer Aniston.” That might speed it up.

Farhad: Right. Offer your own suggestions for what that person should enjoy. So what do you think about the second problem about the loud subway listener?

Emily: I’ve actually run into this myself. You do think, “My goodness, buddy. By the time you’re 40, you are going to be stone deaf.” I’m very sensitive to ambient sound. I’ve gotten up and moved. I think if that’s possible, get up and move.

If you’re on a crowded subway… I mean, this is a subway so this isn’t hours and hours. It’s not like you’re on a train or a plane, and I think pretty much you have to live with that. If it is a train ride or a plane ride and it’s just blasting, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying, “Excuse me, if you wouldn’t mind, could you turn that down? Because I can actually hear your music.”

And either the person will say, “Oh, I’m so sorry; I didn’t realize,” or be a jerk.

Farhad: I think it’s perfectly fine to ask but I guess I kind of disagree with the premise here that the music is any more annoying than all of the other sounds that you may hear on a subway. I think it’s annoying when I hear two people loudly talking about something behind me on a subway and I’m trying to read a magazine or I’m reading a book and I want to be deeply concentrated on that. I would never think to tell people to stop chatting about work or something and I think it’s kind of in the same league to tell someone to turn down their music.

If it’s really annoying, I think you should move. You could perhaps ask. I don’t think the person has to do anything in response to you.

Emily: But if you’re stuck sitting next to someone on a long train ride… I think there are various studies that have shown conversation around you is easier to tune out than music, particularly if you know the music. Then you just almost can’t help but hear it.

I’m old enough that I remember the boom box and people would carry around – the bigger, the better – and blast this. We have to thank technology. Maybe you could tap the person and say, “Hey, you’ve got bad buds, buddy.”

Farhad: I was thinking about that, though. It’s polite to use ear buds compared to the old days of using a ghetto blaster. It’s a step forward. Maybe they should get better ear buds. You get these in-ear ear buds that go really deep into your ear and they make it better for the person who’s listening. You can listen at lower volumes so that doesn’t ruin your ears. I think they also work in reverse where they don’t let sound leak out to the rest of the world.

Emily: I have to recount the story I read in the “New York Times” during the boom box era. This kid comes on, it’s blasting on the bus, everyone is being annoyed beyond belief. This businessman in a suit says, “Hey, that’s a really nice radio there. Could I give you $100 for it?”

The kid says, “Sure!”

The guy hands him a $100, takes the boom box and throws it out the window of the bus. There’s one solution.

Farhad: That could work. You can’t do that on a plane, though.

Emily: True!

Farhad: That’s the other way. Just buy the device from the person sitting next to you and then you’ll be fine. If you’re part of the 1%, you can do that.

Emily: So, you’ve got a three-minute limit at Redbox, choose your Adam Sandler movie, and it’s okay for the person behind you to tap you on the shoulder and say, “Look, could I just skip ahead of you?”

Farhad: On ear buds, I think if you’re the listener you should try to be polite and don’t play it too loudly, but if you’re the person who’s overhearing the sound, my first instinct would be to try to tune it out. Otherwise ask but don’t expect the person to turn it down in response to you.

Emily: Never expect the other person to respond to your request.

Farhad: True.

Emily: Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is digitalmanners@slate.com

Farhad: You can also join our Facebook page where we carry on the conversation throughout the week. Go to www.Facebook.com/digitalmanners.

Emily: And we’ll talk to you next time on Manners for the Digital Age.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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