I was watching the AMC historical drama The Terror the other week, and at various points some of the men — who are all on a “doomed” 1840s exploration of the Arctic — come out to survey the ice and snow wearing blue-tinted or wire-mesh “sunglasses.” (I want to call them “old-fashioned,” although at that time they were current-fashioned.) Now this is what sunglasses are for, I thought. This is an appropriate time to wear sunglasses.
New York Times health columnist Jane E. Brody recently encouraged readers to wear sunglasses more often, citing their ability to keep bugs out of our eyes, among other things. Okay, she mostly cited their ability to protect our eyes from the damage of ultraviolet rays, which can cause cataracts, cancer, and other eye growths, but she also mentioned their ability to protect against bugs, which was an amusing visual. (What’s going on over there, Jane?) The case she made for increased sunglass-wearing was compelling, but she neglected to mention what I think is the most salient point about sunglasses, which is that we wear them too much, socially. I think we should be making more of a point to take them off when we talk to one another. This seems to be mostly a lost cause by now, but like the discovery of the Northwest Passage, maybe it’s a lost cause until it’s not. As etiquette expert and The Protocol School of Texas founder Diane Gottsman put it to Who What Wear last year, “Any time you are meeting someone in public, such as inside a home, a retail store, an office building, or a restaurant, you should give the person across from you your undivided attention and respect by taking your shades off.” Or, more simply: “When engaging in conversation with another person, make the extra effort to take your sunglasses off.” I propose that we treat sunglasses the way we treat smartphones: something to indulge in while solitary but to put away when in conversation. A friend told me he’ll go so far as to ask other people to take their sunglasses off, which I hadn’t considered as a possibility.
I’m aware that some people feel the opposite way: that sunglasses are polite and allow people to avoid the awkwardness of having to make eye contact. But I would argue that it’s more awkward to force someone to scan the surface of your sunglass lens, hunting out the place where your pupil might be. That might sound ridiculous, but it’s a tiny and yet deeply unnerving act. It underscores just how instinctive it is to want to touch some sort of “center” in a conversation — to have a default place for the mind and eye to land. Making eye contact with someone creates a sort of indefinable third space between people — you’re not entirely within yourself, they’re not entirely within themselves, and the two of you exist momentarily in a sort of no-man’s-zone in the middle. Mirrored sunglasses take this to an even more disturbing level. Who wants to look at themselves while they talk? (Or worse, while they listen?) An element of trust and openness is lost when people can’t make eye contact. I feel like vulnerability advocate Brené Brown would agree with me here.
Sunglasses as we know them were invented in 1913, by a British chemist, although 12th century Chinese judges apparently wore smoky quartz lenses to conceal their expressions, and the Roman emperor Nero supposedly watched gladiators through a kind of emerald monocle — and Inuits have worn snow goggles since prehistoric times (often made of wood or ivory, they typically had slits in them, vaguely like Kanye’s shutter shades, or Levar Burton’s on Star Trek). Most sunglasses today are designed to protect eyes from the ultraviolet light that can cause cataracts and eye cancer, and admittedly mirrored and wraparound ones are especially good at this. I should mention that I was walking with a friend recently whose Ray Bans were transparent enough that the eye contact thing wasn’t a big deal.
I know sunglasses look cool, but they’re undermining an essential part of human connection. Sunglasses create a barrier that makes certain things easier (like distance, observation, the impression of imperviousness) while making other things harder (connection, intimacy, humor).
We should wear sunglasses more carefully, is what I’m saying. They are like clothing for the face, and sometimes nudity is preferable. It’s important to let our naked eyes touch every so often, creating that special beam through the air. Transmitting the spiritual frequency. You know what I’m saying?