“Also, I left my headphones on my couch, so now what do I do if I hate people?”
You probably understand the frustration underlying that text and the sense of camaraderie in my friend’s immediate reply: “I have no good solution for that, sadly.”
Headphones are more than a convenient gadget to me and a gazillion other people—probably including you. They’re not just a nice way to get my Panic! At the Disco fix when I’m in public and can’t blare “Hallelujah” for everyone else to hear. They’re my safe place in a crowded waiting room, my sanity in the chaos of a subway station, my sensory anchor in a sea of abstract finals-week concepts.
In many ways, these flimsy rubber earbuds build a safety barrier between me and the world. They save me from having to make eye contact. They protect against mindless small talk. They lock me into the task at hand when ambient conversations tug at my attention.
But they also isolate.
And in a lonely world full of synthetic relationships, perfunctory “how ya doin’?”s, and long-distance Facebook friends, isolation becomes a real danger—especially for introverts and/or shy people. It becomes a vicious cycle: we’re surrounded by people and pummelled by stimuli every moment of the day, thanks to work, classes, and social media, so we retreat into solitude—but because all of that social stimulation is surface-level, we’re people-weary and yet soul-numbingly lonely at the same time. So we venture into the chaos of crowds, only to reemerge, still exhausted and still isolated.
I noticed this paradoxical near distance one evening as my flatmate and I sat on neighbouring couches in the living room, both sipping tea, both doing homework—both sealed by earbuds into individual cocoons of music. We sat within arm’s length of each other for several hours without once engaging.
To speak—to share an experience—became an intrusion that required pausing music, removing an earbud, emerging from a private world.
In a moment when we could have shared the companionship of background music and quiet presence while we studied, we instead chose to lock ourselves away. For either of us to fill the room with music would be to invade the other’s privacy and convenience—an infraction of the worst kind in a culture where, somehow, steady individual comfort has taken the place of dynamic interpersonal relationships.
I still carry my earbuds everywhere I go. I plugged them in to shut out voices on the bus this weekend, and I will turn up the volume to seal my private world around me in the science building this afternoon.
But in the quiet of my flat, with my flatmates nearby, in those shared moments of doing homework and washing dishes and stealing chapters of recreational reading…in those moments, I leave the earbuds out and leave myself open.