Eye Contact

Communicative Meanings of Eye Contact

The study of eye contact, also called oculesics, is a sub-category of nonverbal behaviours in the field of kinesicsOpens in new window. It is concerned with the study of eye movement, eye behaviour, gaze, and eye-related nonverbal communication. Eye contact is a direct and powerful tool of interpersonal communication.

Eye contact is a natural byproduct of effective communication. In fact, scientific studies show that two people tend to communicate more effectively with each other if their interaction contains an amount of eye contact that they both find appealing. To look someone in the eyes is to invite him to communicate with you.

Eye contact indicates degree of attention or interest, influences attitude change or persuasion, regulates interaction, communicates emotion, defines power and status, and has a central role in managing impressions of others.

Eye contact is also one of the greatest ways to build positive and trusting relationships with others. Our eyes betray our true feelings; eye contact creates intimacy and trust. However, if it is not accompanied by words or a smile, it might be interpreted as hostile and lead to confrontation.

As with all nonverbal cues, the messages you send with your eyes may be interpreted in a variety of ways, but there are three central interpretation of eye contact in a workplace context:

  1. Too much eye contact is generally considered as communicating superiority, domination, lack of respect, a threat or a threatening attitude, and a desire to insult.
  2. Too little eye contact is interpreted as not paying attention, being polite, insincere, dishonest, or shy.
  3. Withdrawing eye contact by lowering the eyes is usually taken as a sign of submission.

Eye contact also indicates whether a communication channel is open. It is much easier to avoid interacting if we have not made eye contact, because once we do, interaction virtually becomes an obligation. When we like one another or want to express our affection, we also increase our eye contact.

As a rule of thumb, when speaking to someone, match their frequency of eye contact. This will build good rapport, whereas mismatching will take away from the rapport. To avoid being interrupted, break eye contact at the end of each sentence. It is considered rude to interrupt a speaker without eye contact; reversely, if you want to interrupt someone, make eye contact first. If you want to invite someone to speak after you finish your sentence, simply look at them invitingly.

Important Hint! 

The use of eye contact varies significantly from culture to culture. In some cultures, direct eye contact may be considered an honest and confident approach while in others, it may be construed as insulting. For instance, in the USA, direct eye contact is usually considered a sign of trustworthiness. Therefore, regular and attentive eye contact will probably convey your honesty and approachability to an American. However, in India and other Asian countries, a hard, unblinking stare may be interpreted as rude, unyielding, and offending.

Varieties of Eye Contacts

1.  Direct Eye Contact

This is generally regarded as a sign of truthfulness when speaking; however, practiced liars know this and will fake the signal. When listening, eyes which stay focused on the speaker’s eyes tend to indicate interested attention, which is normally a sign of attraction to the person and/or the subject.

2.  Widening Eyes

Widening the eyes generally signals interest in something or someone and often invites positive response. Widened eyes with raised eyebrows can otherwise be due to shock, but aside from this, widening eyes represents an opening and welcoming expression.

3.  Narrowing Eyes

People who have narrow eyes, or who narrow their eyes, are seen as dominant. When the eyes are narrowed, they take on the appearance of a visor—it looks as if the person is peering through a slit in their helmet. They also produce other revealing signs of dominance, like the lowering of the eyebrows, the narrow, resolute set of the mouth, and the absence of smiling (Collett, 2003).

In addition to these, Fast (1970) offers several insights into eye contacts:

  1. Polite inattention
    When we encounter unfamiliar people, we avoid either staring at them or ignoring them; we glance at them deliberately with ‘polite inattention’. That is, we look at a person just long enough to make it obvious that we have seen him, and then we turn our eyes away. We do not ‘catch the eye’ of the other, neither do we ‘lock glances’. Our passing glance is just to let the other know that we aware of his presence, do not recognize him, and not want to intrude upon his privacy.
  2. Exchanging glances
    When we pass a stranger on the street, we may exchange glances with him when we are about eight feet apart, signal the route we are taking with a brief look in that direction, and then keep looking away till we pass each other. This facilitates the passage; each takes the indicated direction without clashing. Goffman (1969) notes that the passing glance and lowering of the eyes indicate trust and lack of fear. This attitude is emphasized if we look directly at the other’s face before looking away.
  3. The look and away technique
    This is often used when we face persons of repute or those physically disabled. It is an assurance to them that we respect their privacy and will not intrude upon it by staring. This technique is also used to avoid embarrassing someone who we find odd—with an unconventional hairdo or outlandish clothes, for instance. Conversely, we might sometimes stare at and lock glances with people longer than is acceptably polite to indicate our disapproval.

    We may give the ‘look and away’ gaze when we meet someone’s eye by accident in a crowded place and feel awkward looking away during a conversation may signal that we are concealing something. However, in class, when a student is answering a question and looks away from the teacher while speaking, it usually means that he is still explaining and does not want to be interrupted. Locking his gaze with the teacher’s at any point would be a signal to interrupt when he pauses. If he does not look at his teacher during a pause, it means he has not finished speaking yet.
  4. Bedroom eyes
    What Fast (1970) aptly categorizes as ‘bedroom eyes’ is charmingly labeled by Ortega (1957) as the look which is ‘furtively infurtive’ in that a person makes no real attempt to conceal the fact that he is looking. The eyelids are almost three-quarters closed, and it appears as if they are hiding themselves, though in fact the lids are only compressing the look. ‘It is the look of eyes that are, as it were asleep, but which beyond the cloud of sweet drowsiness are utterly awake’ (Fast 1970).
  5. Flashbulb eyes
    This is an involuntary and dramatic widening of the eyes, performed in situations of intense emotion, such as anger, surprise, and fear. The eyelids are opened to the maximum to display the roundness and curvature of the eyeballs. Flashbulb eyes are a danger signal ‘of imminent verbal aggression or physical attack’ by an angry individual (Givens, 1999).
  6. Doe eyes
    A softening of the eyes, with relaxing of muscles around the eye, and a slight defocusing as the person tries to take in the whole person is sometimes called doe eyes, as it often indicates sexual desire, particularly if the gaze is prolonged and the pupils are dilated. The eyes may also appear shiny.

Another observation of eye contact is that when people are engaged in an interesting conversation, their eyes remain focused on their partner’s face for about 80 per cent of the time; however, the focus does not remain exclusively on the eyes. Instead, they focus on the eyes for two to three minutes, and then move their focus down to the nose or lips, finally moving back up to the eyes.

Occasionally, the gaze moves momentarily down, but always returns to eyes. Your gaze behaviour can further be categorized as:

  1. Formal gaze
    This kind of gaze is often used during business discussions such as job interviews, client presentations, and board meetings. Here, the speaker gazes at the imaginary triangle formed on the other person’s forehead (in an upward direction on the area between the two eyes and the forehead). Through this gaze, the speaker can often remain in control of a formal interaction.
  2. Informal gaze
    This kind is often used during talks in the informal and social ambience of discussions such as departmental meetings, team briefings, appraisals, and exit interviews. Here, the speaker’s gaze drops below the other person’s eye level and focuses on the imaginary triangle formed on the other person’s face (in a downward direction on the area between the two eyes and the mouth).
  3. Personal gaze
    This kind is used during conversation between people who are very close and informal in their relationship such as between two close friends of the same sex, relatives, married people, or partners. Here, the gaze shifts across the eyes and slides to the lower parts of the person’s body, focusing on the imaginary triangle between the eyes and the chest area. Sometimes, a personal gaze may move to the lower abdomen and thigh area.

Adapted from:
Shalini Verma, Technical Communication for Engineers (Eye Contact or Oculesic 2.8.1.1, Pg 70-71.)