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Emily Yoffe: Hey, buddy, enough with the earbuds!
Farhad Manjoo: I'm Slate's technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo.
Emily Yoffe: I'm Emily Yoffe, Slate's Dear Prudence advice columnist, and this is Manners for the Digital Age.
Farhad: This week's question comes from a woman whose husband must really enjoy podcasts. She writes, "Dear Farhad and Emily, I've been fighting this fight since the first iPod. If my husband is speaking to me, I insist that he take the earbuds out. He says that he can hear me because the sound on the iPod is turned down, but his intermittent 'whats?' belie that statement. To me, this is just plain rude. I feel like if he wants to have a conversation, the buds should be out. What do you think?" Signed, I Want His Full Attention.
So, Emily, do you talk to your husband with the earbuds in?
Emily: I am the only person on the planet who has no earbuds, but I'm also old enough to remember boom boxes. There was a time where people actually lugged gigantic radios around with them and made everyone within a 20-foot radius listen to their music.
Now, technology eliminated this scourge. But I think there's something just as disturbing about trying to have a conversation with someone who's hooked up, like to an IV, to some other electronic source. And I don't care if they nod and say, "I can hear you." Pull the earbuds out.
Farhad: I wonder if my wife wrote this letter, because I am guilty of being an "earbud husband." But I have to say, the way I do it is I listen to music or podcasts when I'm doing something else, when I'm cooking or working in the yard or something.
If my wife talks to me during that time, I don't expect launching into a deep conversation; I expect she's usually saying something like, "Where's the broom?" or something that can be easily answered and I don't really feel like I should take the earbuds out for that small bit of communication.
What I usually do if it's going to take more than 10 seconds or so is put the audio on pause, and I talk to her and I leave the earbuds in.
If that's what's going on in this relationship, then I think that's fine. If, on the other hand, the wife is trying to have a deep conversation, they're talking about where they're going to go on vacation this summer and the husband is listening to music while it's going on, I agree that's rude.
But I think if it's a short conversation, I think it's fine.
Emily: I think if it's short on the order of, "Do you want sparkling water or flat?" OK, keep your earbuds in. Anything longer than that, I'm sorry, there's just something utterly distracting about talking to someone having more than one back and forth exchange where you see that slightly glassy look.
Everyone thinks they're the person who can multitask, they can listen to a podcast of This American Life while having a conversation. You can't do it.
Now, it's true when you're at the dentist office, there's the classical music in the background and your dentist could drill your teeth. But we're not talking about ambient sound. We're talking about a technology that blocks external sound and is feeding right into your ears. How hard is it to take at least one earbud out?
Farhad: But wait a second, Emily. What about the privacy of the listener, the moment that he's enjoying listening to this podcast, listening to our fine podcast, or listening to music? He's sitting there having a good time and then his wife is talking to him and now he's supposed to stop doing everything and take his earbuds out and talk to her? What if he doesn't want to have a conversation?
I don't think that we should create a rule where anytime somebody is enjoying a podcast we should make it fine for them to be interrupted by anyone coming along to chat with them.
Emily: Do you want to stay married, Farhad?
If I'm reading a book and clearly absorbed in it, my husband would say, "Hey, can I ask you something?" There's just the normal "I don't want to interrupt my spouse who's engaged in a task."
But your default is earbuds in. What is she supposed to do? Pass you notes?
Farhad: I like that comparison to reading a book. If you see somebody is reading a book and they're taking time out to enjoy the book, you're not going to launch into a conversation with them without asking, and you're not going to insist that if you start talking they close the book.
You're going to wait for a time where you think it's appropriate and then you're going to say, "Honey, can we talk now? Or can we talk later? I'd like to talk to you about this."
I feel like you should come to a compromise about when you want to go into conversation and when you want to enjoy whatever you're listening to or reading.
The way this letter reads is that she's saying whenever any kind of conversation begins that he has to remove the earbuds. I think that's too harsh.
Emily: Well, he sounds like you and the earbuds are in all the time. If someone's nose was in a book all the time, that would be a problem in the marriage. It's a kind of screen between people, and unless your spouse is truly annoying, give your spouse the courtesy of pulling one of the plugs out.
Farhad: I agree with you there. If he has them in all day and he's using them as a way to not speak to his wife, or at least if she feels that way, that's not good.
Emily: Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Farhad: You can also join our Facebook page where we carry on the conversation throughout the week. Go to Facebook.com/digitalmanners.
Emily: And we'll talk to you next time on Manners for the Digital Age.