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Have you ever locked eyes with someone across the room and felt something powerful? That powerful feeling might have been attraction, maybe discomfort (causing you to look away quickly), or even just a sense of recognition. Either way, you’ve probably experienced what eye contact can do.
In relationships, the importance of eye contact can’t be overstated. It can make or break a feeling of connection between people—whether in a personal or professional setting. This article will explore the importance of eye contact and give you five tips for improving this skill.
Why eye contact is so important in humans
Making eye contact is one of the most powerful means of communication among people.
This is because human eyes are different from those of most of the other members of the animal kingdom.
We have easily visible sclera (the whites of the eyes) and darker-colored irises. This contrasting appearance of white and dark makes it easy to focus on the eyes when engaging in face-to-face contact. The whites of our eyes are larger than those of our primate relatives. Evolutionarily, this difference allows humans to tell which direction someone’s eyes are pointing, regardless of head position (Kobayashi, 2001).
Other primates, like apes and chimpanzees, rely on the direction of the head to determine the object of another’s focus. Direct eye contact in the animal world often means aggression or attack. Because of this, where a primate’s head is pointing is used more often for communication. Our ability to use eye contact as non-verbal communication may have allowed early humans to coordinate activities and plans before verbal communication existed (Kobayashi, 2001).
Eye contact is even important for babies and their brain activity. Research shows that babies prefer to look at faces that are looking back at them (direct gaze) over those looking to the side (averted gaze). Babies as young as four months old can also follow the direction of a person’s eyes when looking at someone’s face, even if that person’s head doesn’t move (Farroni, 2002).
Eye contact can affect how a person feels. Some people feel empowered by direct eye contact, while others find it uncomfortable. Your perception of a person’s personality, honesty, intelligence, etc., may also be affected by their amount of eye contact.
The two primary forms of eye contact are direct and averted eye contact.
Types of eye contact (and what they may mean)
Understanding eye contact may give you some insight into what people are thinking and feeling. There are no hard and fast rules with regards to eye contact—your perceptions of a person based on their eye contact patterns may or may not be valid. However, eye contact is an essential form of nonverbal communication; along with other signals, like body and facial expressions, it may give you additional clues about a person.
Social conventions and standards regarding eye contact and body language vary across cultures. This article refers only to eye contact practices and perceptions in the United States.
Direct eye contact
Direct eye contact, or mutual gaze, is an essential tool we use to communicate with others. While maintaining eye contact, we can convey a host of emotions and messages to the onlooker.
Looking directly at someone while they’re speaking indicates to the speaker that you’re listening and paying attention. Think of how annoyed you feel when you’re talking to someone, and they keep breaking eye contact to check their phone. We may be good multi-taskers, but single-minded attention is much more respectful. It shows others that you value their time and effort and are actually listening to what they have to say (Freeth, 2013).
Direct eye contact is captivating—it may affect cognition and how you think. One study looked at how well people perform challenging mental tasks, like verb generation, while maintaining eye contact. This study found that people had a harder time performing the task while holding a direct gaze (Kajimura, 2016).
You might have also noticed that people will often look away when answering a difficult question; this may be so that they can think more clearly and not be distracted by the direct gaze (Freeth, 2013).
Direct eye contact can be a sign of an extroverted personality. Someone who is outgoing and assertive is more likely to be comfortable with direct eye contact than a shy, introverted person.
Another trait that some people link with direct eye contact is intelligence. There is no scientific evidence that someone who is comfortable with direct eye contact is more intelligent than others, but the perception may differ. One study showed that people perceived the speaker to be more intelligent if they maintained eye contact for longer. Higher perceived intelligence is linked to being engaged, responsive, and reactive in a discussion, along with mutual eye gaze (Murphy, 2003).
Some people equate direct eye contact with honesty and an averted gaze with lying or dishonesty. For example, a recent study showed participants videos with a speaker proclaiming a variety of ambiguous statements. Despite not knowing if the information was true, participants more often believed the speaker who met their gaze directly over the speaker who didn’t (Kreysa, 2016). Again, this is not always the case, and it’s vital not to make unfair assumptions based on only one aspect of the dialogue, but it’s good to be aware of this perception.
Looking away or off to the side is called an averted gaze. Humans do not respond as strongly to averted gaze as they do to direct gaze. There’s a reason this kind of gaze is often called “cagey.” However, there are benefits to looking away. First of all, based on social conventions in the United States, prolonged direct eye contact may feel “creepy” to the receiver, depending on the situation. In some cultures, an averted gaze is a sign of respect.
Another benefit of averting your gaze is that it may make it easier to concentrate when answering a difficult question. Looking away may help you think more clearly and effectively as it decreases both the distractions and brain processing demands of visual stimuli (Freeth, 2013).
People with certain conditions like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and social anxiety disorder (SAD) have difficulty with direct eye contact; they are more likely to use an averted gaze in their social interactions. One of the hallmarks of ASD is the avoidance of direct eye contact. A small clinical study found that people with ASD unconsciously preferred faces with an averted gaze over those looking directly at them (Madipakkam, 2017).
With social anxiety disorder, there may be a fear of being evaluated and criticized; people with social anxiety may avert their eyes to avoid direct eye contact. An averted gaze may represent the fear of being the center of attention and scrutiny (Schulze, 2013).
Eye contact during sex: the windows to the soul
You’ve heard the phrase, “the eyes are the windows to the soul.” This is because it’s often easy to tell what a person is feeling by looking into their eyes. We even use the phrase “love at first sight” to talk about when two people first feel attracted to one another. Eye contact attraction in the bedroom is the real deal—there’s nothing like the “come hither” bedroom eyes from your partner to get things heated up!
Part of what makes eye contact so hot during sex is that both partners are completely open to one another—there’s no hiding your true feelings. Having your partner understand what you need without saying it indicates a deep level of trust and compatibility that can take things to the next level.
5 tips for improving eye contact
If you want to avoid projecting insecurities, here are some general tips for improving your eye contact.
1. Don’t be afraid of rejection
Though you may be afraid of judgment from your peers or coworkers, they don’t have to know that! By acting confident and unafraid, you can actually trick yourself into believing you are until the anxiety goes away. If you notice you’re consistently breaking your gaze, try to focus on being the first to make eye contact. Most people are also waiting for “permission” to make eye contact, so being the first to do so may increase your confidence.
2. Know the difference between eye contact and staring
A strong, unintimidated gaze is great for your confidence, but don’t go overboard. There is a definite difference between a respectful gaze and too much eye contact. Most people can comfortably hold eye contact for a few seconds with a stranger and more if they are friends or lovers. Keep this in mind, and make sure to blink or glance away every few seconds in a conversation. Otherwise, you’ll give off a “creepy stalker” vibe that most people won’t appreciate.
3. Focus on one eye at a time
Where you are looking is not something you usually think about when you’re comfortable with someone. However, it can become an issue once you start feeling self-conscious in a situation. You’ve probably noticed that you can’t look at people in both of their eyes at once, and compromising on the middle makes you look cross-eyed.
Instead, focus your gaze on one eye for a second or two and then move to the other eye, perhaps focusing on the person’s eyelashes. You can also look at the person’s mouth or hands if they’re demonstrating something. Try switching between these spots every couple of seconds to maintain good eye contact but avoid staring.
4. Give people space
Most of us have encountered the type of person who just doesn’t seem to understand personal space. They get right in your face and stare into your eyes when talking to you, and it’s uncomfortable. To avoid doing that to a stranger or coworker, increase the distance between the two of you to just slightly more than what you would put between yourself and a friend. This way, you can continue to make eye contact to show that you’re listening without creeping them out.
5. Eye contact when making a speech
Public speaking is a nightmare for some people—but it doesn’t have to be. The secret to eye contact when making a speech is to make the audience feel like you’re engaging with them but not picking anyone out specifically. You don’t have to make eye contact with every person there, but you also don’t want to talk to your notes or the back wall the whole time. Instead, pick different people in the audience to focus on throughout your speech. Don’t do left to right or front to back as this will feel too calculated. Try to smoothly rotate your focus randomly throughout the crowd, shifting your gaze every few seconds.
Avoiding eye contact
We’ve talked a lot about what eye contact can communicate to others, but what about a lack of eye contact? If you struggle with making eye contact, don’t feel bad. We all need breaks from other people sometimes, and removing eye contact can be a natural self-defense mechanism.
The simplest answer to why people avoid eye contact is that they may be nervous or uncomfortable. It makes sense—eye contact invites cooperation and increased interaction from others. If you feel insecure, you don’t want people to take a closer look at you. Many people struggle with speaking in front of large groups since all that eye contact focused on you can be nerve-wracking.
Looking into someone’s eyes is a good way to tell how they’re thinking and feeling. People may avoid eye contact if they wish to mask their inner thoughts. Poker players often use this tactic and wear sunglasses to hide their eyes, thereby allowing their thoughts and emotions to stay hidden.
Similarly, some people have trouble maintaining direct eye contact when they are lying or being insincere. Think about asking a little kid if they drew on the walls. Chances are, they’re not going to be able to meet your eyes when they deny it. One study showed that people frequently avoid eye contact when making sarcastic or insincere comments (Williams, 2009).
Even if you struggle with maintaining eye contact, using the strategies we’ve shared in this article can help you appear more confident and trustworthy to everyone you meet.
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- Freeth, M., Foulsham, T., & Kingstone, A. (2013). What affects social attention? Social presence, eye contact and autistic traits. PloS One, 8(1), e53286. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0053286. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23326407/
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- Madipakkam, A. R., Rothkirch, M., Dziobek, I., & Sterzer, P. (2017). Unconscious avoidance of eye contact in autism spectrum disorder. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 13378. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-13945-5. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29042641/
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- Roslan, N. S., Izhar, L. I., Faye, I., Amin, H. U., Mohamad Saad, M. N., Sivapalan, S., et al. (2019). Neural correlates of eye contact in face-to-face verbal interaction: An EEG-based study of the extraversion personality trait. PloS one, 14(7), e0219839. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0219839. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31344061/
- Schulze, L., Renneberg, B., & Lobmaier, J. S. (2013). Gaze perception in social anxiety and social anxiety disorder. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 872. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00872. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24379776/
- Williams, J. A., Burns, E. L., & Harmon, E. A. (2009). Insincere utterances and gaze: eye contact during sarcastic statements. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 108(2), 565–572. doi: 10.2466/PMS.108.2.565-572. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19544962/
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.