The principles of wearable etiquette

Illustration of a couple getting married wearing VR headsets and exchanging Oura rings.
Gadgets aren’t the problem, but how you use them might be. | Illustration by Christina Lee for The Verge

First adopters are ambassadors for the future. Glassholes need not apply.

On my wedding day, I took off all my wearables.

I had many reasons why. I didn’t want any distractions. It seemed ridiculous to squeeze in a workout on my big day just to keep my streaks going. As a wearables reviewer, I didn’t want to bring work to my wedding. Plus, there wasn’t a strap in the world that would’ve camouflaged the Apple Watch or whatever other tracker I was testing. I didn’t want my Oura Ring memorialized in my wedding photos, either. So I left everything on their chargers.

I didn’t think too hard about it until the other week when I saw a Threads post. “Normalize not wearing your Apple Watch to fancy dinners,” it read. I thought about it again when I saw a picture of a guy wearing an Apple Vision Pro at his wedding, the bride looking on in what I assume to be disbelief. The ensuing discourse online reminded me that uncertainty was another reason why I left the wearables off on my wedding day. Wearable tech, while more commonplace than the days of Google Glass, is still an emerging category — and one where the social script is still being written.

Is it rude to wear a smartwatch if you’re a bridesmaid? Are you a glasshole if you use smart glasses to take a picture of a cute dog on your commute? Am I being unnecessarily cautious because I’m afraid to wear the Vision Pro when alone in public? I’m no etiquette expert, so I decided to ask one for some wearable do’s and don’ts.

Be considerate

The gadget isn’t the problem.

“It’s not that a smartwatch can’t be paired with a tuxedo or formal evening attire, but your behavior could certainly not pair well with the formal expectations that you would encounter at that same event,” says Daniel Post Senning, author and spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute. (Emily Post, an American novelist, was the etiquette expert of the 20th century. Senning is her great-great-grandson.)

Say you do go to a fancy dinner wearing your Apple Watch. Senning says you ought to consider silencing notifications and perhaps go the extra mile to make sure the watch itself isn’t visible. If your watch keeps lighting up with notifications, it can be distracting regardless of whether you’re the one seeing them. You could be taking someone else’s attention away from a shared experience. The goal is to not turn others into a captive audience to your calendars, emails, texts, and alarms.

There are, however, nuances. A few years ago, I was a bridesmaid for a dear friend and, once again, had to decide what to do about my smartwatches. I went without for a second time, just because wearing a smartwatch with a big OLED display felt weird with my sleeveless, floofy bridesmaid dress. But if I had worn them, I wouldn’t necessarily be in the wrong.

“If there’s a question as a member of the bridal party, checking in with the bride or groom is wise. They might be thinking about it a little differently than you and that’s one of those times where I would defer to their opinion on a pretty special occasion in their life,” says Senning.

Discretion isn’t a pass for dishonesty

Things get a little trickier for more discreet wearable tech. The Oura Ring is a passive tracker, makes no noise, and can pass for a regular ring. (So much so people use them as wedding bands.) It’s hard to imagine people getting mad if you wear one to a formal event. Smart glasses can be just as discreet, but wearing them opens a whole other can of worms.

Person holding Ray-Ban Meta smart glasses in front of them while another person peers through a double-sided mirror in the background.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge
Public restrooms are a prime example of a place where people expect privacy.

The Ray-Ban Meta smart glasses look just like any other pair of Ray-Bans. That’s vastly different from the original Google Glass, which were easily recognizable thanks to their futuristic design. That discretion is neat because you’re less likely to get them snatched off your face. It’s also disconcerting because people won’t clock that your normal-looking glasses can record your surroundings. While recording footage and test photos of my commute, I gave myself the ick — not because anyone noticed, but because no one noticed.

It gave me pause when it came time to go to my friend’s wedding. Would it be a thoughtful gesture to record parts of the ceremony, or would it be infringing on my fellow guests’ privacy? My colleague Becca Farsace also wore the Meta glasses to a wedding, and while her family knows she’s always taking video, she did feel a tad worried a guest might notice and ask what the glasses were, how they worked, and why she was wearing them.

According to Senning, you have to factor in social expectations. We live in an era of influencers and normal people whipping out their smartphones to capture everyday moments. People might not think twice if you take a picture of a cool car on the street or that cute puppy on the subway because we now have an expectation that somebody is probably filming in public spaces. If you feel uncomfortable, you can still always ask.

The calculus changes in places like public bathrooms, where there’s a reasonable and continuing expectation of privacy. In those situations, Senning says it’s better to remove any possibility of being a glasshole — either by turning the device off or putting it in your pocket, regardless of whether anyone else knows. And if your smart glasses have prescription lenses, you can always politely explain that you’re not recording if someone looks askance. (This, of course, only works if you’re not recording in a private space.)

As for my friend’s wedding, I ended up chatting with my friend and their partner. I explained what the Meta glasses could do and that I was happy to leave them home if they felt uncomfortable. They were cool with me filming the ceremony since there wouldn’t be a videographer. Afterward, they loved the footage I sent. I kept the glasses off for the reception.

Be a good ambassador

For real bleeding-edge tech, Senning says you’ve got to be aware that you’re, in some sense, acting as an ambassador for the future.

“You don’t want to be expecting, or even asking, people to jump ahead and join you in a space where they have no knowledge or preparation. The onus is on the new user, new adopters, and brands to integrate what they’re doing in a way that’s coherent with the spaces that they’re operating in,” says Senning.

This is a real reason why the term “glassholes” was invented. Public sentiment turned against them not just because they could record in public.

Being a good ambassador also means not showing off, even if you’ve plunked down $3,500 for a headset and love it to bits. It — or any other gadget you buy — doesn’t need to be the topic of every conversation. More important, Senning says, is to wear your devices “casually, comfortably, and competently” because people will be looking to you to see what works and what doesn’t. You should also be well-versed enough to answer questions from naturally curious folks — and keep things moving once you’re done demoing your favorite feature. You should also be proactive about being forthright and considerate and making sure you’ve got a good sense of time and place.

Prioritize human connection

A recurring theme in my conversation with Senning was the importance of human connection — and how eye contact is a critical component of that, which, in turn, made me think of EyeSight on the Vision Pro.

Much ink has been spilled about how bizarre EyeSight is. Still, it’s fascinating to see Apple acknowledge that eye contact is such a powerful concept that they’d attempt to project an eerie scan of your actual eyes from the Vision Pro’s front display.

Nilay Patel wears the Vision Pro, with the front display showing a faint image of his eyes.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge
EyeSight is goofy, but it acknowledges the cultural power of eye contact and human connection.

But we don’t yet live in a world where everyone has a headset. We’re trying to be humans. Senning says a good tip is to think about it the same way as when you’d take off sunglasses or brimmed hats. That includes times when you introduce yourself, share a meal, and at special occasions like ceremonies, events, funerals, and religious services. Essentially, any time where establishing your identity or making a connection is important, you ought to show your full face. Showing your face is, literally and figuratively, a way we culturally express openness, trustworthiness, and honesty. It’s how we show we’re still human.

At the end of the day, gadgets are extensions of the people who use them. Advances in technology will always change how we communicate and relate to each other, but never the why. Sure, maybe new gadgets will help you disappear into a new, personalized reality. But so long as we all have to exist together in this world, the age-old rules of consideration, honesty, social awareness, and just being a good human still apply.

Source: The Verge The principles of wearable etiquette

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