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Attention, Pick-Up Artists: The Headphones Mean No


The Guardian recently ran an op-ed against an article that’s inflamed some feminist sensibilities, and some common ones, too. In the controversial article, a pick-up artist who goes by Dan guides less experienced, less confident single guys in “How to Talk to a Woman Who is Wearing Headphones.”

The op-ed at The Guardian also billed itself as a guide for men to talk to women who are wearing headphones. Except it isn’t a guide, it’s a don’t. As in, don’t talk to women who are wearing earbuds.

As the author, Martha Mills, puts it: “[Wearing headphones] is a defence. A defence against the aural onslaught of modern life and especially the leering advances of said throbbing hormone mountains. In short, we wear them because we don’t want to be talked to. It’s basic physics really – we fill our ear holes to stop you from getting in.”

Earbuds Mean Go Away, People

The lead for the story goes so far as to call Dan’s guide “deeply sinister,” which of course it isn’t, since it’s for single guys looking for dates, not serial rapists. Some may say Mills is too hostile, too insecure, and too suspicious of men who may want to talk to her in public while she’s wearing headphones. There is a certain unforgiving edge to her tone when she says, “I know what you [the pickup artist] are doing and I’m ignoring you, hoping the ground will open up and take one of us to the depths of somewhere Hellish, which would be more pleasant than this situation is developing to be.”

The vast majority of young women who wear headphones in public don’t want to talk to you.

So maybe she’s overly harsh to the poor bachelors looking for love. Barring extremely forward or threatening advances, women should try to be gracious, even to men who have either totally misread your body language (which is hard to do, because the headphones are a dead giveaway), or totally ignored it. But the truth remains: the vast majority of young women who wear headphones in public don’t want to talk to you.

I’m partial to the strategy of “filling your ear holes” so the pickup lines of random men (or any unnecessary human interaction) can’t get in. I used headphones walking between classes all through college, then busing and walking back and forth to work when I lived in the city. It worked pretty well, although I can’t be sure if it was the headphones, the scowl, how quickly I walked, or some combination of the three. You couldn’t have read a vibe that was more “Don’t talk to me. Ever.”

Ever Hear of Social Cues?

Mills calls the earphones a defense, and she’s exactly right. Social defenses like headphones, crossed arms, vapid stares at inanimate objects, or continuous close inspection of your phone’s screen aren’t obstacles to be rammed through, they are cues to be read carefully and respected.

I once made the mistake of having “flair” buttons on my backpack as a freshman in college—snarky sayings, Dr. Who references, etc. Before I could get my earphones back in after signing out at the gym, some guy noticed them and tried to strike up a conversation. Taken aback, and totally baffled that anyone wanted to talk to sweaty me in my runny makeup and the most un-flattering workout clothes imaginable, I politely turned down his offer for coffee. I wasn’t angry with him for trying to talk to me, of course, but I rethought my flair at that point.

Maybe I was insecure, but one can’t brush off the headphone defense as simple feminine insecurity, at least no among millennials. It’s about putting out the vibe, very deliberately, that you don’t want to be talked to. Yes, maybe there’s some hostility there. But some guys are so thick-headed that if you put off anything less than hostility, they’ll try their luck, and then you both must endure the awkwardness.

Some Women Don’t Want to Be Picked Up

In this conversation, it should also be acknowledged that some single women don’t want to be picked up, ever. Their lack of a wedding ring does not mean they want to be approached, and this is particularly true for deeply religious women. Call me a fundamentalist, zealot, or buzzkill, but if some guy knows nothing about you and your deeply held faith and is trying to pick you up, he is almost certainly the wrong guy. He may not know that, but it’s still true.

On the other hand, if he noticed you, too, have a prayer rug sticking out of your bag, or you have Corinthians opened up in your lap, and he wants to hear your thoughts on it, that might be a bridge to actually getting to know each other.

But if you’re still holding out hope that this Dan character is right, and women wearing headphones don’t really mind being approached by a cute guy with a nice smile, please just put yourself in the girl’s shoes for a minute. Let’s say she’s on a bus. It’s winter, so at 5:30 p.m. it’s already after dark. She’s in her twenties, maybe a buck twenty-five at average height, crammed in with people twice her size, some of them standing over her. She just wants to get home. You can tell because she hunches over with her headphones in, crosses her arms, and stares at a gum wrapper on the floor.

Does this woman want to be tapped on the shoulder and see a hand waving in her face (as Dan suggests hopeful bachelors do to get a girl’s attention) by the complete stranger standing there? No. No she does not.

If You Want to Be Approached, Don’t Wear Headphones

Sure, some girls want to be talked to. If that’s you, you don’t wear headphones. Or at least, wear them discreetly and try to look friendly and open. Maybe even try for some of that challenging and elusive eye contact. So if you believe the daily grind needs more social lubricant, argue for “Why Women Should Ditch Their Headphones,” not “Why Women with Headphones Should Open Up to Pick-up Artists and Not Be So Difficult.”

Also, don’t give me this “pussification of American men” malarkey in defense of pickup artists. I want men to be men, and for a woman to feel like a man overcame some level of discomfort because she was worth talking to is nice. To be pursued, politely, is nice. For men and women to meet, marry, and make babies for the continuation of the species is more than nice: it’s critical. But so is respecting someone’s boundaries, and that means that unless other body language says otherwise, accepting that headphones mean “no.”