Millennials and Their Earbuds

Brett Steele is Crescendo’s Communications Guru. His talent is teaching and training professionals how to become active listeners and outstanding communicators.

The Earbud Addiction

As I sit here writing this article, I’m jamming out to one of my favorite songs.  The words, “I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandeli-eeer…” are bursting through my earbuds and I can’t stop thinking of how much I love this song. I’m even dancing a little.  I’m also about to put together a spreadsheet for my supervisor in a moment.  I’m collecting some boring data about performance appraisals and at what rate departments comply with the performance appraisal policy.  I also have 52 unread emails because I was out yesterday and I keep stopping intermittently to answer those along the way.  Needless to say, it’s a busy day and without Sia singing about her chandeliers in my ear right now, I don’t think I could survive another hour with my excel spreadsheet. It’s not just me though, it’s a lot of young professionals my age.

In addition to our Facebook addiction, our tweets about lunch, followed by Instagram photos of said lunch, there is a VERY real staple in the Millennial community…the earbuds. Find a Millennial within two or three hundred feet from you and I’ll bet you see the dangling accessory plugged into their iPhone or work computer. If not, it’s guaranteed to be tucked away in their pocket for the ride home or jog at lunch. If my generation gets a logo, it’s earbuds.

This isn’t something that is readily understood by the generations before us.  The responses are normally, “why do they always need their earbuds?” or “that seems so distracting,” or  “I hate waiting for them to pull their earbuds out to ask them a question!” While it may be hard for our predecessors to understand, there is a very real reason that we wear these tiny earbuds at work (sometimes huge headphones, thank you Beats by Dre).

Closed Door Policy

I observed some generational friction on the topic in a workshop I attended a couple of weeks ago. My group was predominantly Baby Boomers and while discussing obstacles to communication, the talk eventually turned to the annoyance of earbuds in the office. A few members were venting about how irritating it is to approach a co-worker and have to wait for them to unplug their headphones before they can speak to them.  It was seen as disrespectful. The perception is, “They don’t care enough about office etiquette or interpersonal communication to pull their earbuds out at work.”

That’s when it occurred to me to ask: “Do these co-workers have their own office?” The answer was “no, they have cubicles” which prompted another member to quickly add, “And that area is so loud too isn’t it? You can hear every conversation in the building. I have to close my door sometimes to shut out the noise and get some peace and quiet in the office.”  There was a lot of nodding and quiet mumblings agreeing with the lady who spoke up about the volume.

It was then that I made a connection, even though I’d never stepped foot in their office.  “So could these cubicle co-workers be listening to earbuds just to drown out the noise pollution in the office?” They had just disclosed that the environment is really noisy and they needed to shut their doors to concentrate, but the Millennials down the aisle can’t shut a door…because they don’t have one.  “Consider this,” I told them, “when you shut your door to get some peace and quiet that is the equivalent of the Millennial shoving earbuds in – that is how they get some peace and quiet.”

It’s hard to disconnect from the noise when you don’t have four walls and a door.  While they may look like they’re just skating by and listening to music, they may actually be shutting the proverbial door to get some work done. One of the participants said, “Oh, I guess I didn’t think of that.” See, we’re not so different from prior generations; sometimes we just have different ways of getting to the same goal.

Listening Outside the Earbuds

So if we still have a disconnect, it’s not because of the background music – it’s misunderstanding each other’s motives. I mentioned in the group discussions with the Baby Boomers that a closed door sends a very particular message to me.  Personally, if I saw my manager’s door shut on a regular basis, to me that means, “KEEP OUT” or “I’m busy,” but in reality, they probably just want to reduce the noise in the office too.  Sometimes this stuff isn’t as difficult as we make it. Talk to your Millennial employee, and find out why they’re using the earbuds.

Both sides will benefit from listening to each other’s thoughts and concerns. It’s true that Millennials need to be sensitive to their surroundings, and at times, listening to music is not appropriate. But Baby Boomers on the other hand, can’t just write off the preference as selfish and distracting. Instead of jumping to conclusions, let’s encourage an exchange about work styles and community etiquette. Surely we can find a way to work as a team while using various strategies for getting our work done.

There is a solution out there. And it may just come with a great theme song.

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