Very specific question, I know, but this is something I've thought about a lot as someone who frequently wears headphones in public and has to contact people in private with them on.

Often, when a friend/SO is wearing headphones I find it challenging to politely get their attention. I really dread when I don't notice and startle them, or when they aren't expecting me and I'm not sure how to proceed. I've tried tapping surfaces near them, approaching slowly, gentle contact, but nearly all of them seems to startle the listener unless they are prepared for interruption (and, to be fair, the same happens to me as well!).

I'm curious if there is an accepted way to get someone's attention when they're immersed in listening through their headphones.

Assume there is a polite and needed circumstance to contact the individual, and that they don't necessarily "not want to be bothered"; they just simply aren't expecting to be contacted at that time. It's not good to break someone's boundaries when they don't want to be bothered, but assume a situation like one I've encountered before: friend says to come to their room whenever, but when approached, is listening to music.

  • @TheRealLester I've edited the question to exclude co-workers. I think this makes it a bit more specific to include people who are receptive to contact and comfortable around you, and specifically to avoid startling or scaring them.
    – nostalgk
    Jul 24, 2018 at 19:43
  • Most of the answers can still apply to this situation though. The context is different but I can resubmit a decent amount of these answers and it would still fit this question. Jul 24, 2018 at 19:46
  • I think the other question is sufficiently different in that it refers specifically to the workplace where there (likely) are convenient, alternative ways of communicating with others in an environment where it is one's duty to respond as opposed to an intrinsic social interaction. The question itself, as well, states different attempts at solving the problem that would be received differently in this context (likely not as impolite or hurtful).
    – nostalgk
    Jul 24, 2018 at 19:51
  • I'm not trying to be pedantic or anything of that nature; when I made this question, that one did not seem to appear in the related questions. I think this refers to a specific enough problem that others may benefit from it, as (at least in my life) it is a frequent phenomenon :)
    – nostalgk
    Jul 24, 2018 at 19:52
  • 1
    I think it's a duplicate of this one: interpersonal.stackexchange.com/q/4872/8077 and if it's not a duplicate (because headphones on) you will still find good answers to your question.
    – kscherrer
    Jul 25, 2018 at 7:16

2 Answers 2


There are a couple ways to do this:

  • Send them a text message that you're on the way (assuming they have a mobile phone on them and you have their number). This allows them to prepare for your visit.
  • Try to get in their line of vision and gesture at them.
  • If you're showing up at their place, knock louder than usual and ring the doorbell.

A good rule of thumb is to get their attention while still maintaining personal space. Even if the person is a close friend to you and touching wouldn't be awkward, they may not be expecting the intrusion of their space and react startled. Also, some people are naturally jumpy and even the most polite gestures can startle them. However, just respect and maintain their personal space.


If it is not necessary to startle them, then don't. If it is necessary to startle them, then do.

If your friend is somewhere else with their mind, then there is no way to avoid startling them since you are not in the place where they can notice you. They could be in a pure soundscape, deep inside their own thoughts, or just zoned out.

Edit to add: The method least likely to startle them requires that you stay out of their personal space. You could knock on their door. If they can't hear the knock, knock harder. You could also use the door as a fan blowing air at them. If all this doesn't work then give up on being polite and just accept that you will startle them.

  • 1
    While this is a perfectly reasonable answer, it kind of ducks the question. Assume it is necessary to pull them out of their reverie, and OP asks the best way to do so gently.
    – Andrew
    Jul 25, 2018 at 16:08

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