The Thoughtful User Guide

iPod Etiquette

We have something important to discuss. Are you listening? Oh, seriously, will you take out your earphones? Yes, both of them.

Welcome to the first installment of our Thoughtful User Guide. In this series, Margaret Mason helps you tackle tech-etiquette dilemmas from gadget intrusion to social networking faux pas. This week’s article focuses how to use your mp3 player politely.


There was a time when iPod wearers gave one another pretentious nods of solidarity. Once, users offered strangers a chance to “jack in” by handing over a single earbud for a few moments of music sampling.

Though it takes a special sort of person to miss the “Want this? It was in my ear” era, all of us have proven adept at finding new ways to annoy one another with mp3 players. Here are some basic guidelines for enjoying your music without sacrificing your manners.

Consider earphones a social cue.

Wearing earphones is like hanging a “do not disturb” sign off your nose. Like an engrossing novel, they help you avoid interactions with annoying strangers on airplanes or subways. Unfortunately, they send the same go-away message at work. That’s useful if you wear them only when you’re on deadline, but your iPod is more likely to irritate co-workers if you hide behind it eight hours a day. Which brings us to the next point.

Take note of your surroundings.

It may be fine to use your iPod on the commute (in a relatively anonymous public space), but it’s more difficult to use it in the break room at work. When you’re likely to run into someone you know in a communal space, leave your iPod behind, or at least remove one earbud so you can hear someone greeting you; then you can remove the other earbud. If you don’t feel like greeting people, consider addressing that with your therapist.

Respect no-Pod zones.

Mp3 players are unwelcome at weddings, funerals, and other gatherings, and also in classrooms or places of worship. This holds true even if you’re a sullen 13-year-old with inattentive parents.

You should also avoid using mp3 players in restaurants (because the waiter needs to interact with you), waiting rooms (so you can hear the receptionist call your name), and group exercise classes (so the instructor doesn’t single you out for a mildly humiliating demonstration).

Be a professional.

If you work in the customer-service industry, iPods are out. No one should have to feel like they’re interrupting you to get service. Of course, your boss may have already mentioned this.

iPods also have no place in office meetings. Even innocently setting your mp3 player on the table suggests that you’d rather be doing something else. This, though possibly true, will not help your cause during bonus time—and iPods are expensive, yo.

Remove your earbuds to interact.

Leaving your earphones on when someone is talking to you is like refusing to make eye contact. It looks as though you aren’t listening. Stop what you’re doing, remove both earphones, and pay attention.

Removing only one earbud signals that you hope a conversation won’t last too long, or that a person is not important enough to warrant your full attention. Therefore, reserve this gesture for amorous but unattractive strangers on the bus.

Keep the volume moderate.

No one else should be able to hear your music. That constant buzz emanating from your headphones is only slightly less irritating than your tendency to hum “Like a Virgin” whenever Madonna comes on. Speaking of which…

Don’t get funky on us.

Yes, we know you like music. We can see that it moves you. This is because you’re always moving—bopping your head, dancing, drumming, even singing along. Please, stop it. Otherwise, we’re forced to feign interest in your childlike enthusiasm for a song we can’t even hear. It’s exhausting.

Establish your own musical tastes.

You’re excited about your new iPod, but you haven’t bought a CD since James Taylor’s Greatest Hits came out. Asking if someone has a particular CD or song you can download is OK, but never assume that anyone will hand over their entire music collection.

Some people spend obsessive amounts of time assembling mood-appropriate playlists and unearthing obscure bands. Asking these people for a carbon copy of their iPods is a close cousin to identity theft. Instead, ask for a few recommendations or advice on where to look for music you might like.

Share the airspace.

Just because it’s common for people to denigrate one another’s musical tastes doesn’t make it polite. If you’re sharing a speaker system, respect others’ choices, and let everyone have a turn at the jack. Yes, even the girl who played Maroon 5 for six hours the last time she got her turn.

Avoid downloading on shared networks.

There’s a special circle of hell for people who use coffee shop networks to download music. If you find yourself there, say hi to the folks who stream porn over their neighbors’ open wi-fi.

That’s it, you can put your earbuds back in now. This is a good song.