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The silence of the labs

On the social harm of headphones

Stella Hill 4 May 2015

Cold shoulder: not very sociable

If someone was having a particularly stressful day, the rest of us had the option of helping them out by being nice and turning the radio to their favorite station

Times are changing. I feel old and out of touch. Why? Because I’ve never been in a lab with headphones. Before this one, that is.

My graduate lab had one old-school radio (remember those?) in it. What was playing on it depended very much on who came in first in that day and who else was around. Let’s say that the professor did a day in the lab. The radio was on the station he wanted – easy listening. If the assistant professor – the grumpy one – was in the lab, it ended up on the classical music station. If we graduate students were left to our own devices, it was a dead heat between the local pop station (Radio NRJ, for those who recognize the defining sounds of the Nineties) or hard rock classics (who can say no to Ozzy or Poison?).

Music selection required a lot of collaboration, coming to an agreement between people of diverse musical tastes. If someone was having a particularly stressful day, the rest of us had the option of helping them out by being nice and turning the radio to their favorite station. Or maybe turning up the music and having a spontaneous dance. I think it made a lot of difference to the atmosphere in the lab. In a lab with music, there is somehow also chatting, jokes, growing camaraderie when you've got that extra five minutes to kill while your gel is finishing its run, or you have to brainlessly supervise a piece of equipment – what I think of as “dead space time”.

In my current job as a scientific project manager, I get no dead space time. It’s harder to meet the members of the lab, let alone interact with them and get to know them. Lots of my time is spent emailing, meeting and writing minutes and planning. Lots of planning and then executing, but not watching over a machine and having a quick chat while waiting for it to finish its current step and then move on to the next one.

My main work time is spent managing projects. And how do you manage projects? You manage expectations and manage people involved in the project. And how do you manage people? You build trust and get to know them and know what makes them tick. And how do you get to learn people? Small talk. Working next to machines or having a coffee together “while waiting for that gel to run”, or maybe having lunch.

Safe subjects would be sports, food, music, children (I don’t have any but everyone is always interested in talking about their children in some fashion), sometimes travel, more rarely, books. (When you work with scientists and doctors, you quickly realize that they don't have time to read!) I’d recommend staying away from religion and never politics. Some people seem to presume to know that “everyone is ok with this particular political/religious view” I don’t share this view, and I wouldn’t want to offend a co-worker with whom I might one day benefit from having a positive relationship.

I actually started shadowing people in my lab to learn how they tick. I implied it was because I wanted to familiarize myself with their procedures (which wasn't true – I am an old hand), but really it was an attempt at getting some quality time without being too suspicious.

But I quickly realized something striking: exploiting dead space time is considerably harder than it used to be, because people seem to be using headphones much more. First of all, let me stress the exceptions – I don’t see this in the chemistry-based labs I’m in, nor in the pharmaceutical clean labs. They still follow the "no headphones safety rule", with music on low volume for everyone to hear. But in the other places I’ve gone, the lab, the animal facility and other shared spaces, what you mainly find is a lot of people running around with headphones on. The labs are quiet. No one seems to talk to each other, and there is no background music that gives that more informal chatty vibe.

Now I was brought up in a lab where you were conscientious about safety – where you had to be careful not to contaminate your doorknobs and workspace with radioactive substances, for example. In some facilities, quiet and focused was the rule. Despite this, though, we had dead space time. In the clean rooms waiting for the environmental monitoring to finish counting the air particles? You have to stay perfectly still for a number of long minutes – but at least you could chat to your colleagues to pass the time.

Of course I understand that it is pleasant to listen to something entertaining in your headphones while doing mundane, repetitive tasks like pipetting fluids or dissecting tissue. Maybe they are all even studiously listening to improving podcasts instead of doing goofy dance steps between the lab benches and geeking out to old classic rock songs best forgotten. But I can’t help but feel that the lab environment is much more isolated as a result. Fewer spontaneous chats, fewer sharing the experience of "that cool song that was so popular back in my place a few years ago”, less community-building between people.