A lot of people wear headphones or earbuds, often with no music playing, as a sign that they don't want to be bothered. But maybe I want to listen to music when in public, perhaps simply for the fact that I'm bored because I'm not talking to anybody.

Of course, I don't want to play it through speakers, because that would be inconsiderate.

Is there a way to listen to music in public without seeming inconsiderate or antisocial?

My goal is to listen to music while still sending the message that I'm open for communication. I'm more interested in situations involving strangers, but would be open to information about situations involving people that I know.


3 Answers 3


The key to this is going to be non-verbal communication. When I want to make myself available for others to I will use the following non-verbal signals

  • Posture
  • Eye contact
  • Attention


Whether standing or sitting, the way that you carry your body will send quite the message. Sitting back or slouching while standing presents the appearance that you are occupied with thought, or waiting for someone/something. I often wear headphones at work, and when I combine that with sitting back, my coworkers are less likely to come up and talk to me. To present yourself as being more open, sit or stand up straight. This makes you seem more engaged with what is happening around you, which will make you more approachable.

Eye Contact

Eye contact is easily the most important non-verbal communication to use in this situation. We send a lot of information with our eyes (even if we don't realize it). When you make eye contact, add a little smile (nothing major, just a small grin will do). This acknowledges that you're aware of the other person and are comfortable with them, which will make you more approachable.


This ties in closely to eye contact. Where you place your attention will affect how others perceive you. When I don't want to be bothered, I often will tilt my head back and stare off into space. This makes me look occupied and others tend to leave me alone. On the flip side, when I am open to interaction, I pay attention to the people around me and what they are doing. Taking interest in what is happening around you makes you more present and open to interacting with others.

With people you know

All of the things I've previously mentioned will work with strangers or with people that you know. There is another thing that you can do specifically with people that you know, which is to set expectations with them. For example, I've had conversations with my team at work to talk about when it is ok to approach me or not. We have talked about headphones specifically because they often signal wanting to be left alone. I have been able to overcome that by specifically telling my coworkers that they are welcome to come up and talk while I have my headphones in.


You can try wearing only one earbud; most modern music doesn't sound too awful when listening to only one of the two stereo channels.

Especially if it's wireless, half of the people (the ones coming from the side where you don't wear one) will not notice you're listening to music at all. If you're next to a wall or window, you can make it 100% by wearing it on the wall side.

If you don't have wireless earphones, chances are higher that people will notice. If you happen to have long hair, it might conceal the cord enough anyway. But even if people notice, they might think "@jlf is listening to something, but does not seem fully focused on it. They might appreciate being talked to." – at least you'll appear at least less 'closed' than when you have two earphones in.

I'm using this tactic myself in the workplace; we have an open office, and notice that colleagues are more likely to ask me questions with only one earphone in than with both. (I'm not actively looking for conversation at that moment, so the situation is slightly different than yours.)

  • That is a good idea. If my best audio device is headphones, would wearing them with one ear out of the cup have a similar effect, or do you think people wouldn't notice as much?
    – jlc
    Commented Apr 5, 2019 at 13:37
  • I think they might notice (but there's only one way to find out - try it!), but you'll appear more open than with two earphones in.
    – Glorfindel
    Commented Apr 5, 2019 at 13:44

In a casual environment, you could wear a shirt that tries to convey the message. Note: the link is just one example of a shirt that should work. There are others out there, I just don't remember them off-hand.

There are also buttons with similar messages that you could get and put on your backpack, suitcase, or whatever. I apologize, I don't remember any of these off-hand.

I've not actually used either of these techniques, but I know people who have. The shirt in question is one a friend of a friend wears on days when she is feeling more social. When she wears that shirt on public transportation, random strangers will talk to her, regardless of whether she's wearing headphones or not.

The button idea is from another friend of a friend. She keeps six buttons on her backpack. Three of those remain there at all times, the other three get changed out based on her mood, and a few of those are various degrees of inviting people to talk to her.

Neither of these friends of a friend will have conversations with random strangers on every outing they make while decorated for socializing. But they both said it happens a lot more with their social dress on than without it. It's also more effective than anti-social dress, which they've found can also cause people to try striking up conversations with them.

In addition, I've seen other people around using these techniques on public transportation. It's not common, but it happens, and I'm not the only person who talks with them.


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