I love music. But as far as first date questions, Tinder bios, and networking conversations go, talking about listening to music (or podcasts) has become a stale venture. Everyone does it. If you have a commute, you’re listening. If you’re walking down the street, you’re listening.
Sure, once in a while you get a chance to flex your expertise on an extremely niche genre (mine is future funk), but most of the time the conversation goes like this: “Oh yeah, I listen to music. I like a lot of everything. I listen to podcasts on the morning train, yeah.”
It’s hard to convey to others — without coming off as pretentious or socially inept — that from the beginning of high school until shortly after college I was always listening to something. Every moment that I wasn’t required, by law or social convention, to be interacting with another human being, I had headphones in.
I couldn’t stand silence, boredom, or interaction with strangers. And, at 20 years old when I embarked on a study abroad program in Cuba for six months, I assumed I was not going to change my ways. Before I left in the summer of 2016, I stocked up on three sets of Apple knock-off headphones from Amazon, just in case my OG Apple headphones somehow also managed to die. Within four months, miraculously, all four pairs managed to cease functioning.
Blame it on humidity, knock-off quality, or some higher power signaling from the beyond that I needed to break out of my shell … but thanks to that, I went a month without using headphones at all. It was unbelievably tough, this total detox from my own inner world.
But thinking back on that experience, I realize how much that one month blip in headphone activity lead me to reconsider my entire relationship with the world around me. Walking around with earbuds in hasn’t always been a social norm — so why was it so difficult for me to give up music and distraction for a month? How much was I missing out on with headphones in my ears at all times? Why do we distract ourselves on a daily basis? Was it, and is it still, important for me to unplug a little?
Why are we obsessed with our headphones?
If you’re reading this, you most likely have headphones in right now.
I’m not here to put you on blast, though. As Dave Chappelle once said, “modern problems require modern solutions.” Those problems? Other people, the environment around us, and everything. There are many positive effects that headphones bring to our lives — the ability to listen to podcasts and music, and to tune out of reality when you need to, wherever you are. In an Atlantic article titled “How Headphones Changed the World,” Derek Thompson explains there’s evidence that listening to music, and can even .”
Besides mood improvement, headphones also allow us a sense of power over the spaces we navigate.
“Headphones give us absolute control over our audio-environment, allowing us to privatize our public spaces,” Thompson writes. “This is an important development for dense office environments in a service economy. But it also represents nothing less than a fundamental shift in humans’ basic relationship to music.”
In Havana, music is a communal ritual, like sharing one big family-style meal with an entire city. It’s a public display of affection. You’re surrounded by sounds, everything from old men banging out drums on the street to the tired horn section bleating out “Guantanamera” for passing tourists. It demands to connect with you whether you want it to or not. Like bonding over meal, it deserves to be a shared experience.
In that way, it almost feels sacrilegious to wear headphones on the street in Cuba. Of course, people do it. But it felt like a distinctly American choice — prioritizing my individualistic comfort and putting on an antisocial front under the guise of personal privacy. What better excuse to not interact with a culture? Total immersion doesn’t function if you’re only immersed in yourself.
Thompson describes personal music as a type of “shield” for both listeners and those walking around us. “Headphones make their own rules of etiquette. We assume that people wearing them are busy or oblivious, so now people wear them to appear busy or oblivious — even without music. In a wreck of people and activity, two plastic pieces connected by a wire create an aura of privacy.”
This is not to say that my choice was malicious. The facts were simple: Music is good. My commute to the university was a 30-minute walk. Catcallers and scam artists exist. Also, I’m naturally an anxious person.
But just like getting dropped into a spot in the Caribbean, when my headphone plug was pulled, I needed to learn to cope with the outdoor environment, and myself. I could always blast music and movies out loud in my homestay bedroom, but going around the city without headphones daily was a different challenge.
Lost in the sound
The first week was difficult. Other members of my program and I learned the hard way that in Cuba, if you break something, you can’t replace it instantly with the power of Capitalism. Once my headphones were dead as a doornail, I would have to ride the silent wave for the rest of my stay.
But what reared its ugly head first to me was the noise — I have problems with sensory overload, so it’s been almost a necessity since high school to have headphones in with one sound or song I can focus on. Otherwise I get easily overwhelmed in situations with a lot of loud noises coming from all around (working and commuting in New York currently is a trip).
The apartment for our homestay was off of a major road running through Havana, so I calculated and recalculated my route to the university to avoid traffic and miscellaneous city noise. I found myself purposefully walking through residential neighborhoods, quiet pockets of peace, to get to the heart of the city. It wasn’t so bad. The trees were lusher, the bird songs richer. Step 1 complete.
Then I was left alone with my thoughts. Thompson writes that headphones are like a small, invisible fence surrounding your mind. “Making space, creating separation, helping us listen to ourselves,” he says, is what headphones do for people in a crowded world.
But instead of simply zoning out others, I realized, I had also been ignoring myself. Being without headphones was like being forcibly tuned in to the Brain Bullshit radio channel at all times. I had to decide whether or not to entertain every thought that came into my mind. Especially as someone with mental health issues, it was rough to not be able to push the “play” button and turn off a constant negative thought stream.
I want to say that I remembered only the healthiest of coping mechanisms. And I want to say that I applied them as liberally as I did sunscreen in the 30 minute stretches I trekked through Vedado every day. But the truth is, my brain mostly switched between 10-second loops of the Farmers Insurance jingle and anxiously agonizing over whether or not anyone on my study abroad program actually liked me.
“In the name of living a sensory life, it’s worth letting sounds exist in their audio habitat more often, even if that means contending with interruptions and background sound.”
The major drawback to my headphone detox was losing the background soundtrack to my life. I couldn’t melodramatically sigh and gaze out the window of a taxi while Frank Ocean turned me into the tragically beautiful protagonist of an indie film. Who was I without music? Just a depressed Cuban-American transplant?
But in having to face myself, I also unintentionally learned what a (healthier) inner dialogue should look like. Getting sick of my own feedback loop, I focused on other things instead — thinking of new story ideas, making mental notes of new food spots on my route to check out, and learning to pump the breaks when brain pop-ups like, “Coffee sounds great right now, and also you’re a failure!” happened.
The thoughts weren’t who I was. They were just thoughts. I let them pass or didn’t. But I still had to face other people.
Tuning each other out
If I’m being honest with myself, headphones were probably making my interaction skills worse. In the New York Times Magazine piece “Against Headphones,” Virginia Heffernan argues the downside to our plugged-in culture — if anything, headphones make us all more anti-social. “In the name of living a sensory life,” she writes, “it’s worth letting sounds exist in their audio habitat more often, even if that means contending with interruptions and background sound.”
In one of my worst moments, I had been walking up to a crosswalk in Havana, headphones firmly in my ears, music blasting. An elderly man tried to get my attention, and I assumed it was another catcall or a solicitation. When the road was clear, I began to walk across, but turned down the volume to hear what he was saying to another man who’d walked up at the sidewalk. The man I’d ignored had only been looking for someone to tell him whether or not it was safe to cross the road.
If only I had listened. Heffernan notes that while escapism, submission, and denial have their places, “sound thrives amid other sounds.” We, as people, need to be heard. In that moment, without a word, my accessories had sent a social message loud and clear to other humans — I’m here, but I’m not here.
Being suddenly, constantly uninterrupted in the absence of headphones meant having to face any and all passing interactions with strangers. It was hard to justify wearing a non-functioning pair all the time as metaphorical shield. It felt petty; at least when you’re listening to something you can use the excuse that you’re enriching yourself somehow. Sometimes you really just can’t deal with others, but I didn’t want to keep wearing broken earbuds just to visually scream “talk to the hand.”
This isn’t to say I suddenly began having more meaningful connections with every person on the street, opening my eyes to how wide and wonderful the world really is. I just had to deal more directly with the full spectrum of human interaction, from the mundane (asking who the last person was in line), to the downright offensive (suddenly being able to hear every single catcall).
But it felt nice to be able to lend a hand to people whom I would’ve normally just walked right past. I ended up offering directions to several lost tourists who assumed I was a local, and I helped a man in a wifi park translate a flirty Instagram DM from a random American girl (having to gently explain that all she wanted was his money).
Being plugged in would’ve made me miss the wholesome, weird, and wacky moments. I formed a light rapport with our doorman once he found out I was Cuban. (He could not believe I’d ever want to move back to the states.) Taxi rides felt much shorter after I started some interesting chats with the drivers. Waiting (and complaining) in line was now a communal experience.
My favorite songs would still be waiting for me in my music library at the end of the six months. But not letting the small moments pass me by gave me memories I could keep forever, no matter how insignificant.
A friend of mine in the program ended up giving me a pair of low-grade, bootleg earbuds he bought off the street, just so I could have something for our last month in Cuba. I want to say that I had learned my lesson, that I turned them down. That just isn’t true.
The sound was tinny, and barely there. But I couldn’t get enough. I soaked in every note, and I never looked back. I felt validated again in a way only music can make you feel. But knowing I was going to leave soon (and perhaps never come back – who knows which way U.S.-Cuba travel relations will swing these days), I didn’t use them quite as much as I had before. There were people to say goodbye to — a whole country to say goodbye to. I couldn’t miss out on those final moments.
Even after returning home and eventually fading back into my headphone-wearing ways, I find myself infinitely more aware of when and where I’m plugged in. Commutes? A good time to tune out, honestly. At home, around the office, and when I’m exploring a new place? Not so much.
Even after returning home, I find myself infinitely more aware of when and where I’m plugged in.
There are, of course, benefits to headphones. We’re living in a golden era of content streaming, and there’s just so much good stuff out there, even when you’re on the go. Relaxing with music or games during your commute is a great way to recharge in the morning and de-stress at night; it makes it much less of a boring slog. And especially for DFAB (designated female at birth) people, it is nice to not hear objectifying comments all the time.
There are enough good reasons to take a break every once and a while, though.
You’ll do your physical auditory health a favor, especially since extensively listening to music at high volumes can damage the nerves in your ear. It can also give you time to practice some daily mindfulness, grounding and centering yourself. Even if interacting with strangers isn’t your thing, offering a compliment or two, or saying “hello!” to your neighbors once and a while, can make your world, and community, feel like a much lighter place.
Still, you won’t see me joining the Anti-Headphone Gang anytime soon. Those long stretches of my commute are pretty tedious, after all.
But we can all benefit from living a little more in the moment.