Look ‘Em in the Eye: Part I – The Importance of Eye Contact

by Brett & Kate McKay on February 5, 2012 · 71 comments

in Dating, Fatherhood, Friendship, Marriage, Relationships & Family

How often have you talked with another guy who never looked you in the eye during the entire length of the conversation? Or perhaps he did meet your gaze a few times, but then his eyes shifted back to his shoes or to some point off in the distance.

I’d like to say that the ability to make good eye contact is one of the social skills a lot of young men seem to be struggling with these days, which would be true, but I’ve encountered enough gaze-averting middle-aged men to know that it’s a multi-generational problem. And actually, it’s probably something men have always struggled with—females are on average better at making and holding eye contact than males, and in fact, it’s been found that the higher the levels of testosterone a fetus is exposed to in utero, the less eye contact they make as infants—across genders. Interestingly, the exception to this rule are male babies who have the very highest levels of T; they end up being as adept at eye contact as their female counterparts—alpha babies aren’t afraid to look you in the eye!

But just because making eye contact doesn’t come naturally to us men, doesn’t mean you should just shrug your shoulders and accept this predisposition. The ability to make high-level eye contact is a skill every man should work on, as it has been shown to create some incredible benefits for the gazer. Numerous studies have shown that people who make higher-levels of eye contact with others are perceived as being:

  • More dominant and powerful
  • More warm and personable
  • More attractive and likeable
  • More qualified, skilled, competent, and valuable
  • More trustworthy, honest, and sincere
  • More confident and emotionally stable

And not only does increased eye contact make you seem more appealing in pretty much every way to those you interact with, it also improves the quality of that interaction. Eye contact imparts a sense of intimacy to your exchanges, and leaves the receiver of your gaze feeling more positive about your interaction and connected to you.

In short, making greater eye contact with others can increase the quality of all of your face-to-face interactions; there’s no area of your life where being seen as more attractive, confident, and trustworthy wouldn’t be a boon. Being able to look people in the eye and hold their gaze can help you better network with others, land a job, pitch an idea, make a moving speech, woo the ladies, and intimidate your enemies. It can help a lawyer win over a jury, a boxer psych out his opponent, and a minister connect with his congregants. It can even aid a musician in winning over new fans; studies have shown that the more eye contact a musician makes with his audience, the more they enjoy his music—take note ye members of struggling bands!

And the best part of all this is that improving your eye contact is something you can do relatively quickly and easily. Next week in the second article of this two-part series, we’ll cover all the practical nuts and bolts on how to do that, and offer some really helpful eye contact tips for both general conversational situations as well as specific scenarios.

But today we’d like to begin with an exploration of why making eye contact is so important in forming relationships with other people, and why it can be so hard to do.

Why Eye Contact Is Vitally Important for Creating Positive Connections with Others

Why does making eye contact with people have such a dramatic effect in improving their perception of you? There are four main reasons:

1. Our eyes were made to connect. It’s easy to see why the eyes of others capture our gaze: they’re free-moving orbs lodged in an otherwise stationary face; eyeballs are really kind of weird when you think about them, aren’t they? But they also grab our attention for a reason that is distinctly human. While our irises and pupils float on a bright white canvas, none of the other 220 species of primates have white in their eyes at all, or at least whites that can readily be seen.

Image source

The whites of our eyes make it very easy for others to see exactly what we’re looking at and notice when our focus changes direction. While primates will typically turn their gaze in the direction a person points his whole head towards, a human infant is more likely to follow the person’s eyes, regardless of which way the person’s head is tilted. Anthropologists think our uniquely human eyes evolved to help us achieve a greater level of cooperation with others, which is helpful in survival and building a civilization. All of which is to say: your eyes were made to communicate with the eyes of other people.

2. Our eyes reveal our thoughts and feelings. You’ve probably heard the old expression: “The eyes are the window to the soul.” While that may not be literally true, they do reveal a great deal about what we’re really thinking and feeling from moment to moment.

Think of all the eye-related expressions we have in our language. We’re seduced by “bedroom eyes,” wary of “shifty eyes,” and afraid of getting the “evil eye.” We’re attracted to people who have “kind eyes” and eyes that “sparkle,” “glow,” or “twinkle,” while we’re repelled by those who are “dead behind the eyes.”  When someone is eager and peppy we say they’re “bright-eyed;” when they’re bored we describe their eyes as “glazed over.” Love stories in both fiction and real life very often begin with two pairs of eyes meeting across a room. And Bryan Adams says you can gauge your love for a woman from your ability to see your unborn children in her eyes! Kind of romantic, kind of creepy.

That we give so much credence to the idea that we can read someone from what’s in their eyes is due to the fact that even when we hide what we’re really thinking and feeling in our body language and facial expressions, it’s often still revealed in our eyes. “The eyes don’t lie” as people say (although good liars can, in reality, get their eyes to fib for them). This is why poker players often wear sunglasses in order to disguise their reactions to the hands they’re dealt.

The human propensity to look to someone’s eyes in order to decipher what they’re thinking starts very early in life. Around 9-18 months, infants will begin to look to their parents’ eyes to figure out what they’re trying to convey when their face is otherwise ambiguous. And we continue to do this for the rest of our lives.

Finally, we lend a lot of weight to eye contact in our interactions because it’s a form of simultaneous communication. You don’t have to take turns expressing yourselves as you do with talking. If you’ve ever had a whole mini conversation across the room with your spouse, using only your eyes, you know how this works.

3. Eye contact shows attention. Sociologists tell us that people are starved for attention these days. Despite the fact that we’re more “connected” than ever, folks are hungry for face-to-face interactions and someone to really, sincerely listen to them. This hunger for attention can manifest itself in things like “conversational narcissism.” And if you read our discussion about that social malady from awhile back, you’ll remember that we talked about how you show your attention to someone with whom you are talking by using “support-responses,” such as nodding your head and offering “background acknowledgments” like “mmm’s” and “yeah’s.” Well, eye contact is another form of background acknowledgement—and a very important one at that. It shows the speaker that you’re tuned in to what he’s saying. Think of how crappy you feel when you’re talking with someone and he’s looking all around the room for someone else to ditch you for.

The ability to give eye contact to someone as they speak is an especially powerful tool these days; it has become so common for people to break their gaze to check their phone during a conversation, that giving someone your complete and undivided attention can truly win them over.

4. Eye contact creates an intimate bond. When I am performing a task or feeling an emotion, and you are observing me do so, the same neurons that are being lit up in my brain by actually having the experience, are the ones that light up in your brain just from watching me. This is made possible by the presence of “mirror neurons” in our craniums. And the activation of these mirror neurons is especially sensitive to facial expressions, and, you guessed it, eye contact. Have you ever been hit hard with an emotion after looking into the eyes of someone who was experiencing it? Eye contact creates moments where you are able to really feel what someone else is feeling. It links together your emotional states and creates empathy and an intimate bond.

This is why when we’re interacting as disembodied selves on the internet, it can be very easy to be angry and hateful to people, but when you see someone face-to-face, and look into their eyes, you often can get a sense of their humanity and your anger greatly dissipates.

Getting in-sync with others, sharing our feelings, showing attention, creating a bond: eye contact is truly a powerful tool for connecting with others.

Why Is It So Hard to Make Eye Contact?

But on the other hand…getting in-sync with others, sharing our feelings, showing attention, creating a bond…these things aren’t easy—especially for men!

While people like to see our eyes so they can get a handle on what we’re really thinking and feeling, from our side of things, revealing what’s going on inside our heads can make us feel very vulnerable. We avoid eye contact when we don’t want people to take a closer look at us and see more of who we are. This reticence can be rooted in several causes:

Hiding deceit. If you’re purposefully hiding the truth from someone, you may hesitate to look them in the eye because you’re worried that your eyes will give away the truth, and because creating the kind of intimate bond described above when you’re knowingly duping someone makes you feel especially ashamed. This is why people will sometimes, although not always, avoid your gaze when they’re lying to you, why people say things like: “Look me in the eye when you tell me that!” and why people who do make solid eye contact are considered more trustworthy.

Masking emotions. There are times when you’re not trying to disguise a lie outright, but simply wish to conceal your true feelings from others, such as when you do not think your reaction to something will be received favorably by them. Anger, fear, and surprise are the emotions that register most through our eyes, and are hardest to hide. And they’re also the emotions we most often want to keep from others.

Insecurity. Finally, one of the most common reasons that people avoid eye contact is from simple insecurity. Eye contact invites more interaction, and you might not want people to take a closer look at you because of how you feel about yourself.

People with higher-status make more eye contact when they’re speaking to others, while those who feel they are of lower-status will make less eye contact and be the first to avert their gaze. When a guy can’t look anyone in the eye when he’s speaking to them, it’s often because he doesn’t feel like he comes up to anyone’s level; he doesn’t believe he can hold his own with other people.

This lack of confidence can be rooted in insecurity over one’s physical appearance, or the state of one’s mind. A study was done where college students were shown faces which looked at the participants with different kinds of gazes—averted or direct. The students then ranked the faces on whether they seemed approachable or avoidable. Then a survey was given to the participants that evaluated their mental health. The students who ranked the faces that had a direct gaze as approachable were found to be more emotionally stable than those who found the direct gaze faces avoidable. Another study specifically showed that people who suffer from depression—which can do a number on a person’s self-confidence–are less likely to make eye contact with people.

People will also avoid eye contact when saying a sarcastic, as opposed to a sincere, comment, as sarcasm is often used by those who are too insecure to show aggression or state their opinion directly.

The Best Way to Improve the Quality of Your Eye Contact

The common denominator in all three of the above reasons for avoiding eye contact is the fear of rejection. If eyes are the portals to our feelings and thoughts, eye contact acts as an intimacy regulator. The more eye contact you make, the more you put yourself out there. Thus the more confidence you have in what people will find once they get a closer look at you and peer into the chamber of your heart, the more comfortable you feel with looking them in the eye. And conversely, the more shame you feel about what others will discover when you open up to them, the more likely you are to avert your gaze.

As I mentioned, next week we’ll get into the practical nuts and bolts of how to make eye contact in the right way. But it should be obvious from this introduction that no amount of external fine tuning of your gaze can compensate for unresolved internal issues that need fixing. You can force yourself to make eye contact with people even when you don’t feel like it, but good eye contact is not just about quantity, it’s about quality. While it may not be true that the eyes are the window of the soul, in my opinion there really is something almost metaphysical about the way in which our character becomes etched upon them. People with kind eyes are almost invariably kind people. People with a twinkle in their eyes are almost always possessed with an enviable vitality. And those with dead eyes on the outside, tend to be dead on the inside, too.

Thus the foundation of good eye contact truly comes from within (changing your outer appearance by doing things like losing weight and dressing your best helps too, but even these things typically require a change of inner attitude). The more you live a life of integrity, the easier it will be to look everyone you meet in the eye, and do it with confidence and a real smile.

Read Part II: How to Make Eye Contact the Right Way

Note: The principles in this series are written for men who live in Western countries. The importance of eye contact and how to make it can vary from culture to culture.

Sources:

The Power of Eye Contact: Your Secret for Success in Business, Love, and Life by Michael Ellsberg
The Persuasion Handbook: Developments in Theory and Practice by James Price Dillard, Michael Pfau
Applied Organizational Communication: Theory and Practice by Thomas E. Harris, Thomas E. Harris, and Mark D. Nelson
Nonverbal Communication by Albert Mehrabian
Status and Groups by Melissa Thomas-Hunt

{ 71 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Fred@OPC February 5, 2012 at 6:28 pm

Great article. As a business developer by day, my job relies heavily on trust and connection with others. Eye contact is so important in a business development environment, because business deals require two fundamental things:
1) The buyer must believe you are telling them the truth.
2) The buyer must believe you are competent enough to deliver what you’re promising.
Failure to make eye contact during a meeting can derail one or both of these. (I have found that in my industry, it’s the second that gets called into question more often than the first…) Obviously, eye contact must be coupled with a confidence in voice and disposition. I like to think of the whole package as something called “relaxed confidence.” It’s the aura you give off when you are sure of what you are saying, but you aren’t over-selling it so much that it looks fake.

2 Paul February 5, 2012 at 6:37 pm

I do think it is important to remember that there are people who have a very difficult time making eye contact for other reasons, say, they are autistic. There has been strong evidence in recent research showing that there are many more people than previously suspected that are autistic, but undiagnosed. Sometimes it’s a case of a parent just not wanting to know the truth and the kid grows up never thinking of it, or they act so “neuronormal” that they don’t think to be tested. However, even if they seem mostly normal, they can still have serious issues making eye contact. One autistic author explained his issue with eye contact as being a problem with distraction. If he watched someone’s face, the facial expressions so distracted him and grabbed his focus that he couldn’t pay attention to what was being said. Therefore, he would avoid eye contact so he could understand what the person was saying. If diagnosed early, these habits are easier to overcome with practice, but someone haven’t had the early intervention.

So, while I agree with pretty much everything in this article, I do want to make sure others are aware there are explanations for avoiding eye contact other than dishonestly, low self-esteem, or sarcasm, etc.

3 Scott Brady February 5, 2012 at 6:52 pm

Good article and right on point for scenarios in western culture. However, I suspect that many AOM readers travel to other regions of the world where direct eye contact can be offensive or worse. Japan is a good example, where eye contact is limited and a respectful, reserved tone and physical contact is common.

For those of us who travel internationally, do the research and show respect for your host’s culture – it will greatly improve the response from them.

4 Rakshasa February 5, 2012 at 7:07 pm

I read once that eye contact makes it harder to analyze the content of what you hear, as a big part of the mind is occupied with analyzing the mimic etc of the speaking person.
I know it’s at least true for me.
So, while I agree, that eye contact is vital in most social situations, there are times where it is more important to focus on content, i.e. when something difficult is explained. Of course, this makes it even more important that your answer shows that you understood what was said, so the speaker won’t think you’re just not listening.
In my experience, even when you don’t make eye contact under such circumstances, people quickly get if you listen or not just by the quality of your answer, not necessarily eye contact.

5 Smoore February 5, 2012 at 7:17 pm

This is a superb article. I knew a lot of this theoretically already, but I do struggle with confidence, and eye contact is especially hard for me with certain people. I look forward to next week’s article.

6 Stephen February 5, 2012 at 7:27 pm

Of course, learning to look someone in the eye while lying to them is not the best use of your time, particularly in the long run. Practicing eye contact for sincere reasons is great.

7 Andre February 5, 2012 at 7:43 pm

Just a quick note here. As someone who spent years in Asia and Australia, I can tell you that different culture interprets eye contact differently.

For example, in Japan, making eye contact with your boss (or potential boss) is seen as presumptous, if not arrogant.

In China, people speak with little eye contact because doing so is a sign of challenge. When parents discipline their child, they expect the child to look down, as opposed to western culture where parents always say “look at me when I’m talking to you”.

This is why international students (I was one) in western countries are often seen as “shy”.

8 Lucretia February 5, 2012 at 8:34 pm

I hope you’ll address in the follow up post what to do if you’re making eye contact and you notice that the other person is intentionally avoiding eye contact. I generally try to look away as well to make them feel less awkward, but should I be sticking with it to assert my position? I’m stumped on this one I’m afraid.

9 Annon Immus February 5, 2012 at 9:46 pm

Firm handshake and look ‘em in the eye. Also, shoulder-width stance, with weight evenly distributed on both feet looks more confident, too (not leaning on one leg, looking insecure). Someone selling mags at my door one day asked me what I did for a living – based on my eye contact and confident stance. Just something I learned a long time ago, not in being aggressive, just in being friendly. It is noticable to people when you look confident.

10 Will February 5, 2012 at 11:19 pm

Oddly enough Lucretia, I’m pretty much the opposite.

I personally struggle with making eye contact with strangers, particularly girls. For example, I feel like I’m being creepy and staring if I look at a girl and then she looks up and sees me looking at her. This causes me to look away a lot of the time. I’m fine with maintaining eye contact with people I’m already talking to though, strangers or not– that’s not a problem at all. It’s getting the “in” that’s tough for me.

11 Doug February 6, 2012 at 12:02 am

Good article! Eye contact is a vital step in bridging the gap between persons; it’s not called “contact” for nothing. ;-)

In preparation for an important speech last year, I called in the local speech and drama teachers to critique my delivery. When I had finished, the speech teacher told me I might want to look away from her every once in a while. The drama teacher burst out laughing because she had written the same thing. Apparently both felt I was speaking exclusively to them! I’ve treasured that memory as a little triumph for the power of strategic eye contact.

12 Marshall February 6, 2012 at 12:24 am

A really great teacher/visionary/dating couch that I’ve been following for a while addressed the importance of eye contact. A good way to practice is when in a public place to go for eye contact with people you pass and hold it until they look away. Obviously this practice must go along with the appropriate inner work but here are a few guidelines for when your eyes get locked with someone who doesn’t look away either (this is directed towards men):

With women:
A simple hello or a smile

With men:
A simple hello, head nod, etc.

In the rare instance that someone gets offended and says “What are you looking at?”:
You can just say: Oh, I thought you were somebody I knew.

This is something that takes a lot of practice, but you will gain confidence from working on it. Even if you are feeling very sketchy and insecure inside, you can actually boost your inner confidence by leading with dominant body language (fake it til you make it-type principle).

13 Brunsy February 6, 2012 at 12:31 am

I thought this article was magnificent. The fact that the 220 species of primates have no easily visible eye white was stunning. I agree the white background really accentuates our eyes and makes them more powerful. Really, really great. All the information just fits perfectly together and makes sense. Looking forward to part 2.

@Andre: That is a good point about international students. I recently graduated from a high school with a lot of international students who, for the most part, seemed really shy and I could never figure out why.

I’ve been reading AOM for about 6 months now and I’ve loved every bit of it. Started shaving with a safety razor recently too!!

14 drake February 6, 2012 at 1:41 am

great conclusion “The more you live a life of integrity, the easier it will be to look everyone you meet in the eye, and do it with confidence and a real smile.”

15 Ron February 6, 2012 at 1:48 am

Ok, this may sound immature, but my biggest eye contact problem is with women. As soon as I break the initial eye contact (and I always do), my eyes always wander to their *cough ehem* chest. I then stare back at their eyes and then back at their chest, by that time freaking out in my mind that they realize what’s going on. I try to control it, but no matter what I always end up starting at their chest at some point in a conversation. I’m not saying I’m doing a dead on stare towards their chest, but you can definitely see my eyes wander. I wish this were a joke. Are there any tips the AoM community can help me out with here?! Much appreciated.

16 Asriel February 6, 2012 at 3:09 am

I’ve been making a conscious effort for a couple of years to looking people in the eyes when talk with them. I feel looking someone in the eyes is an instant way of showing respect to someone. Also when talking to women with–an impressive conversation piece– making eye contact is a must! It avoids that awkward moment, and like i said before is an instant show of respect. I must admit it was hard at first, the mind is stronger then my will sometimes, but over time its no longer a problem, and i feel much better about myself because of it.

17 Benjamin February 6, 2012 at 4:46 am

Paul: this is exactly the problem I have with eye contact; it is incredibly distracting. I feel that realising that the person you are talking to is too busy trying to figure out which eye to look at to pay attention to what you’re saying is incredibly off putting rather than attractive.

18 Frank February 6, 2012 at 5:30 am

Then there are those that are on the Autism Spectrum, specifically, Asperger’s Syndrome. Like me for example. I don’t make eye contact because after a second or two it really burns and I have to look away. My wife hates that I don’t make eye contact because she thinks I come off as weak. Truth is A.S. is an incredible gift, it does make me socially awkward (bullied) and misunderstood, but if you could spend a day inside my mind, tears would flow from your eyes as a result of the beauty I see and the perspective I have on life. I can only hold eye contact with the most gentle people as they are the only people I will let through “the windows to the soul”. One of these persons fortunately is my wife who possesses incredible empathy. Don’t think I’m weak. I’m 6’3 / 260 lbs. I’ve been a state trooper 23 years (yep, there’s a reason I wear sunglasses). I appreciate the article though. I have tried to overcome the eye contact issue, but truthfully, A.S. permits me to know exactly who and what you are without looking into your eyes. By not looking into your eyes, it’s me I’m protecting.

19 Fender February 6, 2012 at 8:19 am

@Frank:
I can relate to your issues with eye contact, because I’ve had the same problem for as long as I could remember (and, a few months ago, I indeed was diagnosed with some mild form of autism).
I am confident to state that I’ve mostly overcome this problem since a while, though. Ironically, the trick that did it for me came from a Japanese anime*: if you are afraid of looking directly into someone’s eyes, try directing your gaze towards the nose bridge, between the eyes. At least for the other person, this counts as eye contact; and as I got used to it after a few weeks, making actual eye contact felt much easier!

What worries me more at the moment is the notion of developing a piercing gaze, which one phsychiatrist once noted during a conversation and felt uncomfortable by, while I was actually acting normally, and not consciously trying to maintain eye contact at all.
I think the topic of excessive eye contact might therefore also be worth a few words in the next part of this article; I’m looking forward to it, anyway!

20 Will February 6, 2012 at 9:09 am

@Fender

I completely relate with your piercing gaze comment. As a child, I made another child uncomfortable with my eye contact. I don’t even remember who it was anymore, but since then eye contact has been a constant struggle. It probably doesn’t help that I’m imposing and quiet.

Thank you for the post and looking forward to Part II.

21 johnq251 February 6, 2012 at 9:27 am

Thanks for the article! This is something I have long struggled with in my life and have just grown to accept it. I have been making lots of changes in my life as a result of this website, and this is another great one! Keep the great articles coming!

22 Doug February 6, 2012 at 9:27 am

“Sociologists tell us that people are starved for attention these days. Despite the fact that we’re more “connected” than ever, folks are hungry for face-to-face interactions and someone to really, sincerely listen to them.”

Not to be a jerk, but this is very, very reassuring. Great article, nice job taking an in-depth idea into something that not many people consider to be an important part of fitting in with society!

23 Earl of Essex February 6, 2012 at 10:09 am

I always had problems with keeping eye contact with people because I felt I was staring at them -

I was told something that really helps-
Focus on 1 eye. It means you are still keeping eye contact but your not staring the person down.

Try it- it really works

24 MBurdock February 6, 2012 at 10:26 am

The reticence to make eye contact can also be grounded in their character – they may be an introvert.

25 Bellaisa February 6, 2012 at 10:45 am

It’s amazing that eye contact can do so much – but it’s so true.

I love point number 4. I was just thinking about how when someone really gets turned on by you (hey, I write about relationships) – anywase, when someone checks you out and is turned on by you, you can literally feel that emotion they are having and know that you have made an impact on their ‘excitement scale’. You know whether or not your body, or what you are doing with it, has caused an emotional reaction in someone. Now I know why! Mirror neurons. So, thanks! Extremely informative article.

26 Cameron T. February 6, 2012 at 11:05 am

I have a big problem doing this, because I’m hearing impaired. I rely on lip-reading to help me understand what people are saying. As a result, I almost never look people in the eyes. I focus completely on the mouth. It’s the first thing I see when I look at a new face.

If I look in a person’s eyes, I can’t see their lips and thus can’t talk with them.

I’ve often wondered what people think–especially women–when I stare at their lips instead of their eyes.

27 Matt (2) February 6, 2012 at 12:14 pm

@ Ron – same principle, easier to get away with – stare at their lips instead. This way, your eyes don’t wander, and you can still wonder…

This is a great piece in a continuing dialogue of great pieces, and fits together well with the other self-improvement articles.
Thanks AoM – keep it up!

28 James February 6, 2012 at 12:18 pm

I put eye contact right up there with a good handshake. I must admit though, I often find myself slacking on eye contact, and it’s an area I really want to improve. My initial eye contact, when a conversation begins, is typically very good. However, if I’m talking with someone who is constantly darting their eyes around, I find myself often beginning to mimic their act. Now, judging off the beginning of this piece, that seems natural, yet it dawns on me that it’s quite possible they are now judging me by my eye movement.

This happens quite often with my boss, who very rarely looks anyone in the eye when speaking with them. (Wonder why!)

29 Kevin February 6, 2012 at 2:05 pm

I would like to chime in on the ‘piercing gaze’ comment. I feel like I do that too often, when in fact i’m concentrating intently on what that person is saying. My mind flows with many thoughts at once and if I don’t focus I can easily brush someone off unintentionally.

30 Robert T. Libey February 6, 2012 at 2:27 pm

I’m an American ex-pat living in east Africa, and in local culture, eye contact is very limited. I found your article very informative, though, and will try to remember to put at least some of your suggestions into practice in appropriate social situations.

31 Tim Hardy February 6, 2012 at 2:31 pm

This is a truly fascinating topic which will have us all taking a renewed interest in eyes and people. The reverse is of course non eye contact and if you want to show boredom whilst listening to someone talking at you, simply focus on their ear lobe – amazing results I find!

32 kirk February 6, 2012 at 3:28 pm

I’d say Rakshasa’s comment is pretty spot on, in my experience. I work in physics and much time is spent explaining or being explained to. If you are being explained to I find that I never make eye contact but look somewhere completely away, and sometimes only occasionally looking up to mkae eye contact. Especially if you are trying really hard to understand the concept. Its something I see daily. Its very much the same when I am explaining something to someone also, because I dont always entirely undertand it, or the best way myself, and I have to focus somewhere blank/close my eyes event to conceptualise fully. In fact sometimes I downright distrust people that try to force my gaze to theirs while explaining a concept. I usually associate it with the hard sell. Well written article however, and I will be interested to see where this article goes because I definately am guilty of breaking eye contact anytime anything is said that requires the tiniest bit of thought.

33 Brendon February 6, 2012 at 4:15 pm

There are times a handshake is TOO firm and a person’s eye contact is too assertive to the point of creepiness. It’s well known that men prefer to walk beside each other to talk, rather than sit knee to knee. If a person isn’t “looking inside” from time to time when they talk they’re evidently not thinking deeply and aren’t giving you their thoughts, only connecting on a shallow level… or else they REALLY know their subject (eg, electronic theory etc) instead of having to search their memory. Why else do folks use powerpoint presentations but to give themselves time to remember their spiel while the audience is looking elsewhere?
I find businessmen are the worst, invasive to the point of rudeness, like a lecturing mother… no sensitivity to personal space. Eyecontact, like using capitals in a sentence is a dynamic… staring into a “lesser male’s” shifty eyes is as rude as not making contact at all. Constant contact means you’re giving a lecture, not having a conversation. Your focus has to change or it’s not a dynamic at all, there’s a whole range of nuance, your eyes should be expressive, from the sudden glare to the smile of recollection… to the squint into inner space when searching for a memory or the animated darting of a colourful description. Some of these require a loss of eye contact. In manliness there’s a lot of nuance even though we prefer not to admit it!

34 Steve February 6, 2012 at 4:19 pm

Great article. My dad always told me to look people in the eye when you talk to them, but he waited until I was 18 to tell me the simple trick:

Pick one eye to look at. When you look at just one eye you prevent your eyes from bouncing between the two. That simple trick has made worlds of difference for me. My preference is the left eye.

35 Mark Schäperköter February 6, 2012 at 4:53 pm

Great piece of writing! Thank you.
Very enjoyable and very informative.
Can’t wait for part II.
Mark

36 Brucifer February 6, 2012 at 5:34 pm

As Frank has indicated, there are certain medical and psychiatric conditions, Asperger’s Syndrome among them, that limit eye contact. Some psychiatric medications can also have that as a side effect. And with so many people on psych meds these days, (don’t get me started) it is important to look for other physical postures and verbal cues, before one assesses another.

37 RT February 6, 2012 at 8:06 pm

I’m legally blind, so I have some vision but not much. I can look at people’s eyes but I can’t really focus on them or see what color they are or what’s going on in there.

I was wondering if anybody has any experience with that kind of situation, would they be willing to offer any input, and if you’ve ever tried to make eye contact with somebody who is visually impaired, what was it like for you?

38 Simon Frez-Albrecht February 6, 2012 at 9:16 pm

I’ve found that making eye contact and giving a genuine smile while meeting or greeting someone seems to elicit the friendliest response. I’m no psychologist, but I understand this is most likely related to the fact that people tend to reflect the emotions they see in others, so just as misery loves company, so does happiness.

I was in the woods getting together some wood for a bushcraft project a couple of years ago when the new neighbor was walking around and doing some exploring. She ran into me, and we had a short conversation. Recently, she was telling me about how when we first met she was surprised and impressed that I maintained eye contact the whole time.

I have no problem looking into a person’s eyes when they’re talking, but when I myself am talking I tend to move my eyes around. I guess this is natural, especially if I’m not trying to be intimidating or imposing.

39 Kirk February 6, 2012 at 10:29 pm

I always got the feeling the people were too intimidated if I held eye contact too long.

40 Christo February 6, 2012 at 10:43 pm

I’ve always enjoyed that looking a man in the eye can convey everything words can’t. Sometimes you can stare a man down, and sometimes you look into someones eyes and there’s inate trust. Windows to the soul indeed

41 Paul February 7, 2012 at 12:05 am

Words of wisdom– “alpha babies aren’t afraid to look you in the eye!”

Haha… Great stuff as per usual Brett

42 An Average Joe February 7, 2012 at 12:15 am

I think that the reason people with the *twinkle* in their eyes are more alive is because they tend to get more sleep which doesn’t put those dark, depressing “rings” around the eyes… I am no expert though.

43 Andrew February 7, 2012 at 8:16 am

Not trying to be contrary here but I can vouch fircwhat Andre says is true, about Japan at least, as I’ve lived a large part of my life there. In a traditional dojo, we are careful not to make eye contact as it will be seen as a sign of aggression, and looking down also increases peripheral vision. Looking at someone is used to stare down your opponent and we use it for higher level practice and also when we disengage. It is maintained if we break off to change weapons or position. Even so, you learn to sense when somebody is staring at you but not looking at you. Beginners try to be the tough guy but when really capable opponents look you in the eye, it’s not for the faint-hearted.

44 Irvans February 7, 2012 at 10:11 am

Excellent article and insight. Great point on observing cultural differences. Being raised by old-school Caribbean parents, as kids, we were taught that “staring down” your parents or anyone in authority above you was a no no. It was seen as challenge. Kids were seen, not heard. Averting ones gaze was more of a sign of respect of authority.

I never fully realized the full impact of eye contact and/or the cultural differences till an old boss a long while ago stopped and asked me why I was scared of him? Told him I actually wasn’t and asked why he felt that way. His response was that because half the time he spoke to me, I didn’t make eye contact. I for one never even realized that I was actually even doing that. Old habits die hard they say. Had to consciously make an effort to change the habit.

Excellent articles. Keep ‘em coming.

45 Arkhangael February 7, 2012 at 10:55 am

Great article.
How do I make sure I do not miss part 2?

If you wanted to win attention, it’s done.

46 The CXO February 7, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Excellent article – looking forward to part two. I write a lot about what I find wrong in the corporate world (www.intheexitrow), including passive aggressive managers. What I never thought about, is that they like to email you their requests instead of looking you in the eyes and asking… A sign of insecurity or a sign that they know what they are asking you is ridiculous?

47 Jim Bowen February 7, 2012 at 4:24 pm

While I am not hearing impaired I do tend to look at people’s mouths when talking to them. I don’t know if it comes from growing up around a lot of thick and sometimes indecipherable accents but I find it hard to follow what somebody is saying if I’m not looking at their mouth. This could also just be a habit I picked up over the years of avoiding people’s eyes but still wanting to at least look them in the face. I would say it’s about half and half really.

48 Igor February 8, 2012 at 6:42 am

Interesting how the first item on my Implementation Intentions (http://artofmanliness.com/2012/01/22/a-formula-for-success-the-power-of-implementation-intentions/) list was about eye contact: “If a woman starts to look me in the eyes, then I will be the last to avert the gaze”. It was an intersesting experience, but it got embarassing some times. It showed to much interest that were unintended. Some times it trasmitted needyness. So, I changed it to “If a woman starts to look me in the eyes, then I will look in her eyes too, answer with a unmalicious smile and stop looking at her.” So far its beeing a pleasant experience. The hardest part is to smile. Never done it properly yet.

49 Joni February 8, 2012 at 10:33 am

Is part 2 out yet?

50 James February 8, 2012 at 9:10 pm

Brett – Thanks so much for this. I’ve developed a bad habit of avoiding eye contact over the years. I’ve recently sought to improve it, but didn’t really know where to start. AoM comes through again!

51 jb February 9, 2012 at 2:28 am

I am a Lutheran preacher, alpha male, as it were, and in both the pulpit or the Bible Study classroom, I make direct eye contact with my members and it is one thing for which the members really compliment me – “I fell like you were talking to me, Pastor. Thank you.”

I also have a devout Muslim friend who, after we had talked but a few times, told me he would trust me with his wife and children alone. That came out of the blue, and I asked why. “You looked me in the eye, jb, every time you talk to me. That is what a man does.”

Besides, Sweet Mama Lou, my bride, likes that sort of attention, too, and I ain’t dumb on that count! :-)

52 GT February 9, 2012 at 2:30 am

It’s culture-dependent. Among ‘my’ people (I’m 1/4 Maori), eye contact is a challenge.

53 P.M.Lawrence February 9, 2012 at 3:55 am

This article reminded me of a couple of things.

All those “benefits”… for me, they’re not benefits, in general. As a task oriented person – something of a male thing – I find social interaction very wearing, even draining, not energising the way that “people persons” take for granted it must be for everybody else the way it is for them (that makes it harder for me to interact with them than with other people, not easier – they keep trying to engage my enthusiasm, which just depresses me more, the way it did for Douglas Adams’s Marvin the paranoid android, because it runs down my reserves). I have developed the necessary social skills, so I can do these social things while my stamina lasts, just as I can swim underwater for as long as I can hold my breath but not indefinitely (but “people persons” continually assume that, if you’re not using social skills, you don’t have them – and need more of their confounded, draining help). So I would no more want to encourage people in general to find me appealing than I would want to spray my trouser legs with aniseed to make me more appealing to dogs – it would only encourage them to get close and not give me space and time to recover. So this advice is very much “be careful what you wish for, you might get it”.

The other thing is that, when certain ideas come up, say as part of the conversation you are listening to, people often look up and to the side as an involuntary response to whichever side of the brain is getting involved – the side will vary depending on how spatial, emotional, verbal or whatever the brain process is. Not only is this something that breaks eye contact, deliberately maintaining eye contact may give the other person the subconscious (and accurate) impression that you are not taking his or her ideas on board fully. In fact, deliberately maintaining eye contact can work to suppress your brain activity responding as it should, and so lead to not taking the ideas on board fully.

54 JCRogers February 9, 2012 at 2:30 pm

I’m with Paul on this one. My son has been diagnosed as being on the extreme low end of the autism spectrum, and my mom now tells me that I used to behave exactly the same ways when I was young, and I see a lot of myself in him. The whole family pretty much agrees now that I’m on the spectrum as well. And it’s true, i don’t look people in the eye very much. I never thought of it as being distracting, but I do feel like I pay full attention better when I let my eyes wander.

55 John February 9, 2012 at 4:57 pm

Generally-speaking (at least in western culture) making eye contact while speaking with someone is good practice and is thought of as a sign of confidence. And I do this naturally in general conversation. But since my job as an engineer is technical in nature, I find that if I am discussing a technical subject, or some subject that requires deep thought, eye contact is a distraction to me. I find it very difficult to mentally focus on the subject at hand. Maybe I’m autistic and don’t know it! LOL

56 Jim February 9, 2012 at 9:46 pm

I’ve never had a problem with making eye contact, but I wonder if that’s because I grew up in a small town. I’ve noticed that people in big cities–particularly women–seem to dislike direct eye contact. It’s just one more way I don’t really fit in well downtown; it’s as if I’m Jed Clampett.

57 Julie February 12, 2012 at 4:03 pm

This is a great article. A healthy amount of eye contact truly can do wonders for social interaction.

However, I’d also like to second Brendon’s comment re. eye contact sometimes being too assertive. In my experience, it’s mostly salesmen intent on making a sale, but occasionally others, too, whose eye contact is excessively intense and has the distinct feel of being a play for dominance. For me, it is very distracting and causes both unease and distrust in the person behaving this way. For eye contact to be comfortable, I think it’s important to be able to glance away from time to time.

Personally, being able to look to the side gives me a chance to both listen and think about what the other person is saying; conversely, if gazes are “locked” there just isn’t much room to process anything else. All I can think is, “stop staring me out, this isn’t a contest!”

58 Melly25 February 16, 2012 at 9:02 am

Generally I avoid eye contact with strangers because they always seem to want something from me. Ignore the vagrant panhandler and he’ll go away to bother someone else. I’m simply too busy to engage every person I meet. Seriously, I must have some sort of “friendly vibe” that makes people want to take up my time!

59 Anon. February 21, 2012 at 3:08 pm

What about people with iris defects or heterochromia who purposely avoid eye contact due to societies lack of acceptance and constant questioning of such conditions. Many people will look down on someone with different eyes as being somewhat less of a person. And in some cases as retarded. I know this as I’ve experienced it first hand almost every day.

60 C.R March 6, 2012 at 5:26 pm

I am on the autism spectrum and eye contact is very painful to me and even trying to compensate by looking at the bridge of the nose or over the persons shoulder is very difficult for me-I just cant do it.

61 Brent October 5, 2012 at 6:56 am

Very interesting article. I would also consider myself the alpha type. Social gatherings are so painfully boring. I find this to be cultural, however. I take after my mom (more northern euro) and my dad is a typical jewish guy. If I dont hug and kiss him every time I see him he thinks im mad or depressed. I love him as my dad but Id rather give a handshake. Ive never noticed anything about eye contact in my life other than I know deep down that if I dont look directly into someones eyes as they are talking it is somehow a major sign of weakness/disrespect/not caring what the person is saying. I find being unable to focus into someones eyes as a sign of a very “male type” brain. My little sister is autistic (im pretty sure) and I dont think she ever looks at me when we are talking unless she asks me a question. She is very male type brained, if you will, and doesnt make for small talk or phone calls or even direct eye contact. While my other sister can look at me directly and talk for hours on end. I have read that very male typed brains lead to autism while very female typed brains lead to schizophrenia (attaching feelings and emotions to inanimate things or abstract ideas) I find this personally to be true. I, however, believe I am a mix of both. While social interaction CAN be painful I can compartementalize in my brain to respond respectfully and seem like I have genuine interest. Eye contact doesnt bother me at all and being confident without being to dominant is what I aim for. Personally, I think people who stare down most of the time are people who are too insecure to look at you normally without punking out themselves and seem ridiculous while they are doing it. In LA no one will look at you as you walk down the street or hold doors open. Its a very scary “poker face” look that everyone has of every social class and walk of life. Its a like a “hustle or die” and “every man for himself”‘ way of life down there. New York is totally the opposite.

62 jfds November 24, 2012 at 10:18 pm

I’m a male and I generally dislike eye contact. I’m fine with eye contact with females and I’m fine with brief glances with other males but the second another male tries to maintain prolonged eye contact with me it makes me generally dislike the guy haha. I usually find straight away that I have mismatching personalities to them anyways. I’m very much an introvert so I usually enjoy deep conversations, however, I find it near impossible to have deep conversations when looking straight into someones eyes as it draws too much of my attention onto that instead of the subject at hand. I’m fine with women since I don’t usually have ‘theoretical / technical’ conversations with them, but with the males who makes too much eye contact from my experience I can’t really connect with them on the level I’ll like to, and I usually find the conversations lack any depth and the majority of the time it almost feels like the entire reason for the conversation was just so they could make a personal statement instead. Basically they’re pricks lol. Obviously this is just a generalisation based on my personal experience.

63 Attila December 23, 2012 at 9:50 pm

I dislike to make eye contact with strangers or people I mistrust- to me, it’s a form of opening up and letting your energy out through your eyes. Then- only God knows what comes back to you as payback. I have actually felt nauseous after eye contact with some people- especially those whose Eyes Glaze Over.

64 Vigilante February 4, 2013 at 12:26 pm

So here’s my problem. I start out a conversation with decent with eye contact, but the more I think about whether or not my eye contact is good/bad/creepy/elusive, the harder it gets to maintain. I start getting the shifty eyes. Looking forward to more on this subject. It is certainly something I need to work on.

65 Michael February 4, 2013 at 12:55 pm

Scientists have actually shown that people who are lying and/or trying to hide their emotions, tend to make more eye contact due. This is due in part to the fact that they want to make sure someone believes their lies, and doesn’t see past their facade. People who are telling the truth, actually tend to look to one side or the other, because they need to remember something, and because the vast majority of people formulate their thoughts best by looking away from people for a bit.

66 Silas February 4, 2013 at 2:08 pm

I’ve learned how to deal with it. Another art of manliness.

67 Davis Nguyen June 14, 2013 at 5:39 pm

One thing I have learned works for people who have a hard time maintaining eye contact is to fake it.

Instead of forcing yourself to stare in someone else’s eyes (as you mentioned, it can be intimidating), during a conversation keep count of how many times the other person blinks. This will automatically force you to stare into their eyes.

68 Homer J June 28, 2013 at 3:29 pm

Eye contact upon meeting individuals is polite and shows genuine interest in meeting them. Holding eye contact through exchanging names and a basic greeting/hand shake is appropriate and what I teach all people I care about.
As you talk with individuals, eye contact is a form of sensing their interest and level of comfort with you and the subject you are listening to or discussing. Looking away from them while they are talking can be taken as disinterest, and staring at them can make them feel expectant or uncomfortable, so find a balance and way to interact with other body language besides eye contact throughout the conversation. Overt staring is rude and meant to intimidate as an alpha dog. In the animal world there are consequences for challenging the wrong person to a staring contest. As we learn and grow, so does our ability to interact with others on a equal level of comfort with balanced eye contact. Besides the contact there should be other facial and body indicators that match. Without those there will be internal conflict in understanding the other individuals mindset and intentions. People tend to give what they are comfortable in receiving, so I try to match what they give me to make them at ease with me. A shy introverted person will get the lightest touch, and a extroverted person will get my best attempt in a balanced extroverted firm response. The fear of rejection only matters if you allow it, as does the fear of being accepted feeling the responsibility of reciprocation.

Feel comfortable with yourself and others will follow.

69 JoJo July 4, 2013 at 1:19 am

fascinating article, I believe all the points and how u feel that connection. You feel like you share an unspoken friendly experience when you experience positive eye contact if both people are comfortable with it!

70 pete July 20, 2013 at 7:27 am

My eye contact tends to make others feel uncomfortable, even people who are very high level members of society, and lower members as well, doesn’t matter really, I even served as Juror and none of the witnesses would look me in the eyes, BUT they made direct eye contact with ALL OTHER JURORS for some reason. Very few people, (other than women with large breasts) appreciate my eye contact. I think women are just tired of men staring at their chests and find my eye contact more respectful, but most people find my gaze intimidating.

71 Chris November 12, 2013 at 4:55 pm

Some great advice and seriously useful. I use this and I’m starting to really appreciate how much difference it can make. I only smiled and made good eye contact with the girl in my local supermarket to improve on an otherwise trivial counter chit chat. now when she sees me her smile literally beams across the room. Its like discovering a whole new world.

Still working on it for longer interactions though – tricky.

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