There are very few signs that tell the world you don’t want to be bothered. A brisk walk, serious face, and lack of eye contact seem like obvious deterrents, but wearing one thing has become the brightest “do not disturb” sign: headphones. Slipping on a pair of headphones seems to come with the unwritten rule that no conversations are to be had, but are others picking up what headphone wearers are putting down? Does this same intention carry over to headphone use at work, or are employees trying to reap the benefits of a distraction-free environment?
To find out, we asked over 800 people about their perceptions of others wearing headphones and their personal use of headphones in the office. Keep reading to see what wearing headphones might say about you.
What Headphones Convey
For the majority of observers, headphones simply gave off the impression that the wearer wanted to be left alone. While nearly 70% interpreted it as “do not disturb,” almost 60% thought it meant the person was focused. Of course, perceptions were highly dependent on the situation for which the person wore headphones. When it came to public transportation, the majority interpreted headphone use as wanting to be left alone, but when headphones were worn at the gym, it meant the person was trying to stay focused.
Perceiving headphone wearers as rude or pretentious wasn’t nearly as popular as avoiding conversation, staying focused, or just loving music. However, users were perceived as pretentious three times more when the headphones they used were the wireless in-ear type like AirPods. This sentiment might be due to the AirPods’ expensive price tag. A similar theme emerged when comparing wireless headphones to over-ear headphones, but this time, users were considered to be three times more busy when their headphones were wireless.
The perception that headphone users love music wasn’t far from the truth – while 45.3% of respondents got that impression overall, 46% of headphones users said their primary reason for wearing them was to listen to music. Finally, women were more likely to use headphones to increase their focus, while men were more likely to use them to increase productivity.
Wearing Headphones On the Clock
Several studies found that a majority of employees believe listening to music increases their productivity at work. While not all work environments are flexible enough to allow employees to listen to music or wear headphones, nearly 72% of those working in an office with an open-floor-plan wore headphones at least once a day, while 65.5% of those working in cubicles did as well. The use of headphones in offices with open-floor plans may be due to the missing barriers that headphones seem to replace.
Headphone use may be strongly tied to productivity – 88.6% of users perceived themselves as productive at work – and it might also be linked to less stress. While 54.5% of non-users viewed their work as stressful, women who used headphones at least once a day were 15% less likely than women who didn’t use them to perceive their work as stressful. Music has been shown, time and again, to decrease stress and alleviate anxiety, but it’s unclear if wearing headphones without soothing sounds produces the same effect.
Wearing headphones also comes with a sneaky advantage – while they’re supposed to keep noise out (and are getting even better at doing so), some people wear headphones to look like they aren’t paying attention.
More than 1 in 3 people admitted to eavesdropping on other people’s conversations while wearing headphones at work, and women were slightly more likely than men to do so. While around 36% of men eavesdropped with headphones, 39.3% of women did the same. There was a greater difference between those working in cubicles and open-floor plans, though. Forty-three percent of those working in offices with open-floor plans admitted to eavesdropping, while 33.9% of those working in cubicles did as well.
Everyone knows gossip is bad for business. It hurts feelings, creates tension in teams, and can get people fired. But even when normal conversations occur, it can be tempting to listen in. Employees in the manufacturing industry were the most likely to do so, with 55.9% admitting to listening in under the cover of headphones. Public administration workers were also likely to do so (52.6%). This eavesdropping wasn’t a one-time thing, either. Nearly 30% of those who had eavesdropped while wearing headphones reported doing so at least once a day.
Pros and Cons of Headphones
Headphones clearly have many purposes, but the majority of wearers thought headphones meant “do not disturb.” Sixty-one percent of respondents wore headphones at work so others wouldn’t disturb them, but it has been argued that this can get in the way of necessary office communication.
Even people who don’t want to be disturbed can feel the effects of headphone use – at least a quarter of people felt they had missed out on important conversations at work due to their headphones. Still, the benefits of audio solitude in the workplace may outweigh the social drawbacks.
Make an Informed Decision
Whether you’re using public transportation, going for a walk in the park, or sitting at a desk, headphones can provide peace and quiet or your favorite tunes. While they can also come with the perception of not wanting to be bothered, many people who wear headphones might actually welcome the distraction.
Regardless of the reason for wearing headphones, finding the right pair to fit your needs is crucial. Perusing products at the store can be confusing, but at AVSForum.com, reviews from professionals and users can help guide you in the right direction. The advice from our experts and enthusiasts will ensure your choice of audio and visual equipment is the best quality and price. To learn more, visit us online today.
For this project, we surveyed 826 respondents on their perceptions of others wearing headphones. 805 of those respondents had worn headphones in the past year. We surveyed this demographic on questions about their headphone use. 781 of the total 826 respondents were employed, so they answered questions regarding stress and productivity at work. Of the 781 employees, 572 had used headphones at work in the past year, so this group answered our questions around headphone use at work. 307 of them used their headphones at least once a day at work.
55% of the 826 total respondents identified as men, and 45% identified as women. Respondents belonged to the following generations: three people from the silent generation (born 1928-1945), 73 baby boomers (born 1946-1964), 203 Gen Xers (born 1965-1980), 532 millennials (born 1981-1996), and 13 Gen Zers (born 1997-2017).
The following industries had to be excluded due to small sample sizes: Other services (except public administration; transportation and warehousing; construction; real estate, rental, and leasing; wholesale trade; administrative and support and waste management and remediation services; management; utilities; agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting; mining; and armed forces).
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