Why is Eye Contact Important?

Eye contact is the second strongest form of communication. Given the number of poems, songs and paintings devoted to the eyes, people consider eye contact almost as important as talking.

Eye contact may form the first impression you leave with a potential employer. It might seal the deal for a prospective client. It could assure a stranger on the subway that you pose no threat. Through eye contact you pick up on social cues, gauge moods and interpret motivations. You draw the attention of someone of the opposite sex or convince her that you mean business.

People have always sought to draw attention to their eyes. Cleopatra used kohl to make hers more alluring. Indian brides adorn theirs with sparkling jewels. Contact lenses come in a variety of colors for enhancing the eyes. Women can’t seem to buy enough mascara.

When engaged in conversation, people focus around 43 percent of their attention on the other person’s eyes. Medical doctors routinely note the quality of eye contact on patients’ charts. It indicates stress level, degree of trust and other valuable clues for treatment. Mental status exams rate the frequency and quality of eye contact in even greater detail.

“The eyes of men converse as much as their tongues.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Eye contact “etiquette” differs depending on where you are in the world. It is influenced by social status, wealth, political power, education, religion and even ethnicity. What may be polite or engaging in Western culture is not necessarily so in other systems.

In many countries, looking someone directly in the eye is perceived as disrespectful, inappropriately familiar or threatening.

  • Japanese school children are taught to fix their eyes on the teacher’s throat. Even Japanese adults do not initiate eye contact with superiors.
  • In East Asia, Latin America, Africa and other places, social dominance dictates eye contact. Prolonged eye contact can be interpreted as disrespectful or challenging.
  • Muslims hold to strict religious guidelines. Eye contact between the sexes should be minimal or avoided entirely.

A number of animals perceive eye contact as a threat. Staring down chimps or gorillas in a zoo can trigger aggressive behavior. Few people realize that it’s dangerous to lock eyes with a strange dog. Children, especially, should be taught that the animal might interpret it as hostile. If you encounter a bear, look down – and run, of course.

What Are You Lookin’ At?

Eye contact is sometimes a subconscious greeting to a stranger on the street. It may be a polite show of attention to someone who is speaking. It’s a useful tool in business to let others know you’re trustworthy and on top of your game.

People often use eye contact to send specific signals or convey attitudes. Some master the art of eye contact in order to manipulate others. Constant, unbroken staring is usually considered rude or demeaning.

A person who unnaturally prolongs eye contact probably feels he is superior or more powerful. For him, eye contact is a weapon used to intimidate.

More often, eye contact indicates:

  • Confidence
  • Friendliness or approachability
  • Romantic interest
  • An invitation to converse

Who’s Best at Making Eye Contact?

In scientific studies, people of high status stare more freely than do those “beneath” them, but people of lower social rank are more attentive. The boss at work, for example, is more likely to initiate eye contact. However, when he loses interest in what you’re saying, he’ll direct his eyes and attention elsewhere.

Women are better at maintaining eye contact. A common complaint, especially in the workplace, is that men won’t meet their eyes or pay attention when they’re speaking. It makes some women feel that they are not being taken seriously.

Avoiding eye contact with strangers, as people often do on elevators or subway trains, is a subconscious way of protecting privacy. Other avoidance could be due to extreme shyness, social anxiety or more serious conditions like autism.

Lack of constant eye contact doesn’t necessarily mean the speaker is guilty, ashamed or dishonest. Everyone breaks eye contact now and then. Speakers may look at the floor or to the side while collecting their thoughts. In fact, it’s probably a bad idea to maintain constant, unbroken eye contact during an FBI interrogation. Rather than convince the feds you’re telling the truth, it may indicate that you’re lying or just plain weird.

How Technology Is Undermining Meaningful Eye Contact

Sociologists worry about eye contact being sacrificed to technology. Research shows that people watch an estimated 4.5 hours of television every day. They check their phones every six minutes, about 150 times daily. Preoccupation with digital products consumes around 5 hours each day. Who has time for eye contact?

Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of the new book “Focus”, warns that face-to-face interaction is crucial to building strong relationships. Multi-tasking in families, like texting during dinner or checking email while conversing with a spouse, isn’t merely rude. Goleman believes it undermines our capacity to form vital bonds with loved ones.

Eye contact tells others that they have your full attention, that they truly matter.

Babies Looking for Love

Even infants know that eye contact shows you care about someone. From the time they’re just a few hours old, babies seem to know what really matters in life. Researchers in a number of studies have discovered that infants:

  • Recognize and seek out their mothers’ faces within 12 to 36 hours of birth, even though their vision is blurry
  • Prefer images of faces to all other images
  • Prefer faces with open eyes and direct gazes to averted faces
  • Preferred videos of their own mothers’ faces than videos of other faces

A 2002 study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science produced astonishing results: Babies remembered and sought out strangers who had previously spoken to them while maintaining steady eye contact. The infants failed to recognize strangers who had previously spoken to them without making eye contact.

A Canadian study conducted in 1996 noted that babies a few months old almost always stopped smiling when eye contact ended. A group of British neurologists concluded that eye contact plays a crucial role in learning and retention of information.

How to Practice Better Eye Contact

Thanks to neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reshape and adapt, you can improve your eye contact with practice. Try the exercises below with a partner or group of friends and ask for feedback.

  • First, turn off the cell phone and close the laptop.
  • When speaking to one individual, break eye contact every five seconds or so. You may dart a glance to your hands, the ceiling or off to the side.
  • When you’re speaking to a group, don’t let anyone feel left out. As you start each sentence, try to make eye contact with someone new.
  • To be a good listener, incline your head in agreement with the speaker now and then. Avoid deadlocking eyes by slightly rotating your gaze. Look into one eye at a time and glance at the speaker’s mouth occasionally.
  • When arguing, hold eye contact while you make your main points. Good eye contact often eliminates the need for raising your voice.
  • Smiling frequently, raising your brows and looking at the whole face are ways to convey interest on a date.
  • To strengthen romantic bonds with your spouse, practice holding his or her gaze for as long as possible without speaking.

In business, society, friendships and parenthood, good eye contact makes you better understood and more likely to understand others. In close relationships, there’s no better way to tell someone you really care than to gaze into their eyes.

Sometimes, it’s best to let your eyes do the talking.

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