Headphones in the office isn't rude – you're just using them wrong

Headphones in the office isn't rude – you're just using them wrong
(Image credit: Mark Levinson)

It's a dilemma facing office workers around the world: what's the etiquette for using headphones at your desk? Immersing yourself in music and cutting yourself off from the sounds of photocopiers and banter will help you focus and get work done – but won't you look a little rude if you can't hear when someone's talking to you?

Now the starched collars at Debrett’s, the 250-year-old etiquette guide, have waded in with their tuppence. Its advice? Don't use them. Ever. On pain of death.

"If you work in an open-plan office where there is frequent conversation and interchange of ideas between colleagues, do not wear AirPods or headphones," Liz Wyse, etiquette adviser at Debrett’s, told The Sunday Times. "You will be a much more valuable staff member if you stay alert, tune into conversations around you and make a contribution."

You shouldn't even leave an earbud in when talking to colleagues, says Wyse, for fear of looking "half-committed and distracted".

There are, apparently, exceptions. "If your office is very noisy and you have a piece of work to do that demands intense concentration, you could tell colleagues that you're using headphones to cancel noise and gain focus. It would be a better option, however, to find a breakout room or quiet space where you can work," she said.

However, I think this seems misguided at best. Surely most workplaces would prioritise efficiency and productivity over, I don't know, the slight inconvenience of making a colleague walk over to your desk or tap you on the shoulder to get your attention. Aren't we all supposed to be taking more screen breaks anyway? Isn't the official guidance in offices to get up and move more?

Headphones in the office isn't rude – you're just using them wrong

(Image credit: Sony/John Lewis)

Of course, it largely depends on the type of work you're doing. Some jobs require a constant dialogue with – excuse me while I gulp down the sick that comes into my mouth whenever I write this word – stakeholders, and you're not going to be too hot at that if you're lost in your 'Banging House' playlist on Spotify. But some jobs – writing opinion pieces on misguided advice from out-of-date etiquette guides, say – require "intense concentration" and not being interrupted every five minutes. Nothing gets that message across better than a nice big pair of noise-cancelling headphones.

Whoever came up with this advice clearly hasn't used a decent pair of noise-cancelling headphones in recent years, because – newsflash! – they now let you hear your surroundings, to varying degrees depending on your use case. TalkThru, Ambient Aware, Apple's Transparency mode, zero in Bose's 11 gradients of noise cancelling, Jabra's HearThrough... these technology modes might have different names, but they all allow you to do the same thing: hear what's going on around you without forcing you to take out your headphones. So, when you choose to engage one of these modes, you can listen to station announcements, order a coffee, and yes, have a chat about the client's latest revisions without going through the rigamarole of taking your headphones off.

That means you can focus on your work while still managing to "stay alert, tune into conversations around you and make a contribution". Tell that to the 'etiquette experts' next time they try to tech-shame you.

For my money, Debrett’s have missed by far a bigger faux pas when it comes to using headphones in the workplace: leaking sound. Open-backed headphones (or very loud listening through closed-backs) in an open-plan office? Now that should be a sackable offence.


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Joe Svetlik

Joe has been writing about tech for 17 years, first on staff at T3 magazine, then in a freelance capacity for Stuff, The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Men's Health, GQ, The Mirror, Trusted Reviews, TechRadar and many more (including What Hi-Fi?). His specialities include all things mobile, headphones and speakers that he can't justifying spending money on.