The weather outside was miserable, so I headed over to the fitness club to resume my half-marathon training.
I laced up my shoes, plugged in my earbuds, fired up RunDMC and began pounding the indoor track. As I glanced at the others working out that day — running, spinning, lifting — I couldn’t help but notice how many, like me, were wearing headsets or earbuds. At least 8 of every 10 by my count.
Heading home later, I saw even more sporting them — riding the bus, biking down the street, strolling through the park.
It was no surprise, but it did make me curious. Why are we so connected to these devices — or whatever it is that’s playing through them? It’s like they’ve become an indispensable part of our free time, so much that we seemingly reject the natural sound environment around us.
Now don’t get me wrong. At Jabra we build headsets and earbuds — great-looking, great-sounding ones, pardon the shameless promo! — so naturally I’m in favor of people using devices that keep me employed. But there must be a deeper, more innate motivation for sticking these things in or around our ears, and I intended to discover it.
A Retreat Into Our Own Reality
So I convened a gathering of some of the deepest thinkers I know — three of my friends — at a location perfectly suited to deep thought: our favorite watering hole. Not surprisingly, they had plenty of insights — which just kept coming as long as I was buying. Funny how that works.
One explained that listening to music helps him pass the time faster, especially when engaged in unpleasant activities like riding the bus or train. For another, headsets help him block out distractions so he can concentrate harder. Another friend uses earbuds the same way I do, to “get in the zone” while working out. He says he read somewhere that the right soundtrack can even help runners improve their race times by 10 to 15 percent.
Those observations were helpful. But I think our addiction goes deeper. For us, using headsets and earbuds represents control. For much of our daily lives, we’re controlled by our environment: The din of cars driving past our home or planes flying overhead. The noisy banter of coworkers. The music playing in the restaurant where we’re having lunch.
Faced with so little power over our environment, we take back that control whenever we can. Headsets and earbuds represent an easy and inexpensive way to tune out the increasing noise and distractions we face every day. Using them, we create a safe bubble in our hectic lives by choosing the sound environment we want.
Makes sense to me. Although I can see a downside, which is everything in our natural environment we miss when we tune out. Some are pleasant, like the singing of birds, which are the perfect soundtrack for a great run through the woods. Others are important, like a car horn when we distractedly run cross the street without looking.
But for me today, with “It’s Tricky” in my ears spurring me on, I was in a world of my own choosing. Which was just what I needed.