AirPods have taken off as the latest must-have technology gadget. They’ve shown up in celebrities’ ears, become a status symbol, and inspired meetups. But their ubiquity isn’t all upside. They’re also introducing awkwardness to once-standard human interactions — largely because some people never seem to take them off.
Unlike traditional headphones, AirPods are the kind of things you can keep in your ears at all times, and many people do. Their sleek design and lack of wires make it easy to forget they’re resting in your head. And their status symbol shine doesn’t exactly scream “take me out.” This may be great for Apple and its bottom line, but it’s making life weird for people interacting with those wearing them. Are they listening to me? Are they listening to music? A podcast? Just hanging? It’s tough to know.
The AirPods Barrier, as you might call it, has become a nuisance for everyone from servers to lovers hoping to interact with AirPods-wearers. And while there are certainly more rude uses of technology — try staring down at your phone every five seconds while having a conversation — AirPods are creating new digital etiquette dilemmas. Wearing them while speaking with someone isn’t quite as rude as talking on your phone while you interact with a person IRL, but it’s just disrespectful enough to give someone pause.
When Jesse Pickard showed up for a haircut at San Francisco’s Fellow Barber, for instance, he saw an AirPods-wearing patron tuning out his barber, and everything else around him, as his haircut took shape. The scene wasn’t all that surprising to Pickard. AirPods are appearing everywhere now that they’ve been widely adopted. But still, it unsettled him.
“I’ve always seen the barbershop as a place where people are talking and where you’re having conversations with people about your life,” Pickard told BuzzFeed News. “Having your earphones in is the universal ‘don’t talk to me’ sign. There’s something strange about that.”
Strange indeed. And it will take some time for us to figure out how to handle it. “When new things come up, there’s always a period of adjustment in feeling out the new rules,” Berkeley sociology professor Claude Fischer told BuzzFeed News. “Who knows, in 50 years, everybody will have a little chip inserted in their skull. And who knows, they could be watching TV while they’re sitting across from you. I won’t be around then, but people will have to figure out how to deal with it.”
Emilio, a barista at a large coffee chain in Philadelphia who asked to be identified only by his first name, is being forced to navigate life with this technology now, like many other service workers.
Customers regularly come into Emilio’s coffee shop sporting AirPods, he told BuzzFeed News, making life difficult for him. They say “Wait, what was that?” when he asks them if they want anything in addition to their coffee order. And they often walk in with AirPods hanging from their ears with seemingly nothing playing at all, making Emilio unsure of how to approach them.
“The idea that they’re always in your ears has really changed the way I’ve interacted,” he said. “It’s kind of a reminder of how people view service workers. I think there’s a good percentage of people who don’t see me as a full person.”
A large group of service industry workers on Facebook reacted strongly when asked by this BuzzFeed News reporter about AirPods appearing in their places of work. “If you are too busy talking to someone or jamming out to Miley Cyrus or Neil Diamond or Chopin, whatever, don’t complain that you didn’t get ketchup or something. I’ll ask you once and that’s it,” one group member said. “Frankly, at least remove one AirPod whether or not you’re listening to something just to show respect for the fellow human being trying to communicate with you. Common manners, people.”
The AirPod Barrier extends into personal relationships, too.
People cohabitating can be unsure if their AirPods-wearing significant others are listening to them, or to something beamed through their phone. The earbuds’ presence in domestic life has even sparked a meme, in which people proclaim their dedication to wearing AirPods during sex. “The airpods are staying IN during sex, non negotiable,” one Twitter user wrote earlier this month. A search for "airpods + sex" on Twitter will turn up many similar tweets. (This article does not condone the use of AirPods during sex.)
The barrier can rear its head during more casual human interactions as well. Jessica Zalewski, a recent graduate of DePaul University in Chicago, recently complimented a fellow commuter’s boots while waiting for a train — only to realize the woman had AirPods in her ears. “They just kind of stared at me,” she told BuzzFeed News. “And they said ‘What?’ as I was walking away.”
Still, in a world where people seem ready to jump down each other’s throats at the slightest provocation, not everyone is riled by the AirPods Barrier. Rob Casey, a barber at Fellow Barber, told BuzzFeed News that wearing AirPods in the chair is akin to coming in with a newspaper. It might offend some barbers, who could see it as a slight, and he wouldn’t recommend it. But Casey said he’ll roll with it. “At the end of the day, you have to respect their privacy,” he said. “Some people don’t feel like talking.”