Q. Is there anything such as earphone etiquette? A coworker recently handed me her earphones to listen to something she had downloaded. I was taken completely by surprise and used them but was very uncomfortable. I have no reason to question her hygiene, but it still seems to be something that just isn't done. How should I have handled it?
J. L., Stoughton, MA
A. Yes, J. L. There really is such a thing as earphone etiquette. Earphones, which don’t go into the ear or have issues like wax build up, are reasonably easy to share unless the person has a cold. Earbuds, on the other hand, are more of an issue. For me, wax build up and hygiene start to become an issue. I asked my twenty-something daughter, Lizzie, how her generation handles listening with another person’s earbuds. “I just pop them in,” she explained. “If someone is willing to offer and I don’t care as well, then it’s a mutual ‘no big deal.’ I’ve never worried about the hygiene.” The short story is: people do ask friends to take a listen and friends accept.
I have more of a hesitation than Lizzie about putting someone else’s earbuds into my ear. So I tried simply holding one of my buds next to my ear without inserting it to see if I could hear the music. I could. Problem solved without having to turn down the offer and create an awkward moment with a friend.
One final point: If the person asking you to share has a cold, you can politely turn down the offer to use their earbuds. “Not now, thanks. I’ll check it out later.” If you have a cold, hold off on making the offer. Don’t put the other person in a difficult situation.
The question about earbuds also raises the issue of the use of earphones or earbuds at the office. Before putting them in and tuning the office out, make sure your company doesn’t have a policy prohibiting their use at work. Certainly, they're much better than when people had speakers on the desk and everyone had to listen to your music. But unless your company permits their use, keep them stowed. If you can use them, keep the volume turned down low enough so you can hear your phone ring or you can respond if a coworker starts talking to you. Finally, when you are talking to someone, take both earbuds out of your ears. It would be rude to continue listening to your music with one bud in while the other person is trying to have a conversation with you. By leaving the bud in, you’re sending a message that whatever the other person has to say, it’s not as important as your music. That’s not a good message to send.