Overview of Gazing & Its Associated Communicative Meanings

Gazing eyes
Gazing eyes. Image by Colleen HenneyOpens in new window

Gazing is simply the act of looking intently. It is a powerful nonverbal signal which concerns the act, the duration, and the manner of lookingOpens in new window.

Gazing involves the visual connection made between two people, by which one viewer gazes into the eyes of the other. This visual interaction arouses strong emotionsOpens in new window. Such eye contact normally lasts for about three seconds before one or both viewers ‘experience a powerful urge to glance away.

According to Givens (1999), a gaze arouses strong emotions, so people really gaze at each other for longer than three seconds before either one or both viewers experience a powerful urge to glance away. Breaking eye contactOpens in new window lowers stress levels—as measured in, for example, breathing rate, heart rate, and sweaty palms.

We practically engage in gazing in order to perceive the expressions of others, especially those of their faces, to gauge whether the person is genuinely interested in us or not. Real communication takes place when the partners gaze at each other ‘eye-to-eye’. It is difficult to conceal a gaze as we are particularly adept at identifying exactly where other people are looking.

There are different reactions to gazing. There are people who feel uncomfortable when they are looked at in the eye; they become self-conscious with the feeling of ‘being observed’ or being looked upon as inanimate objects rather than persons. There are others whose eyes communicate comfort. All these reactions are gathered from the amount of time one person looks at another.

Gazing Traits

The following are some gazing traits based on research findings:

  • People generally look away as they begin to speak, then turn their gaze back to their listeners.
  • While speaking, people alternate between gazing at and gazing away.
  • There is more direct gaze when people like each other and cooperate.
  • People make less eye contact when they dislike each other or disagree.
  • An unwavering gaze can signal dominance and threat.
  • Gaze avoidance can be a cue for submission.
  • A direct gaze when accompanied by a smile with body thrust forward is a sign of trust between two individuals.
  • Gaze direction clearly shows others where our attention lies.

When looking at a person normally, the gaze is usually at eye level or above. The gaze can also be a defocused looking at the general person. Looking up and down at a whole person is usually sizing them up, either as a potential threat or as a sexual partner (notice where the gaze lingers). This can be quite insulting and hence indicate a position of presumed dominance, as the person in effective seems to suggest that he is more powerful than the other, and that the other’s feelings are unimportant to him; consequently, the other must submit to his gaze. Looking at their forehead or not at them indicates disinterest. This may also be shown by defocused eyes where the person is ‘inside their head’ thinking about other things.

Length of Gaze

The duration of eye contact can vary considerably with different individuals and cultures. Argyle (1967) offers some useful statistics observing that in a given interaction, a person looks at the other between 30 and 60 per cent of the time. If in a face-to-face encounter people exceed this range, then one may conclude they are interested in the other person than in the words spoken. This can happen in two extreme cases: lovers gazing adoringly at each other, or two people getting ready for a ‘battle’.

According to Pease (1993), if a person gazes at another for more than two-thirds of the time, it can mean either that the person looking finds the one he is looking at very interesting or appealing, in which case the former’s pupils will dilate, or he finds him hostile, in which case the pupils contract.

Argyle (1992) makes some interesting observations on eye contact. Speakers look at their listeners quite a lot of the time, about 40 per cent for strangers two metres apart, more than this if they like each other or are further apart. They look in glances of about three seconds, which includes mutual glances of one second.

Effective rapport can be established if we gaze at the other person for about 60 – 70 per cent of the time. A person who is timid and nervous may gaze for less than one-third of the time. Such avoidance may give false signals to the listener, who may read into it doubt or hesitation, while in truth the speaker may be honest and sincere in what he is saying.

People who are confident have more frequent eye contact than those who are unsure or evasive, and the duration of the contact is longer. Confidence also causes the eyes to blink less; hence, the person appears to be a better listener. As a rule of thumb, in individual communication, our normal gaze should be between 5 and 15 seconds, and while talking to a group, we should gaze at specific individuals for 4 – 5 seconds.

Types of Gazes

Natural Gaze

This gaze usually last within 5 to 10 seconds. We use it when we talk to another person in an excited, enthusiastic, and confident manner. This is natural in a one-to-one conversation. The five-second period makes listeners feel comfortable.

In studying social interaction, Watson (1970) found cultural variability in the intensity of the gaze. He distinguished between three forms of gaze:

  • Sharp
    focusing on the other person’s eyes.
  • Clear
    focusing on the other person’s head and face.
  • Peripheral
    Having the other person in the field of vision, but not focusing on the ear or face.

Of the groups studied, Watson showed that the sharpest gaze was found amongst Arabs, followed by Latin Americans and South Europeans; the most peripheral gaze was that of the North Europeans, followed by Indians, Pakistanis, and other Asians.

Mutual Gaze

This is the percentage of time that two interactors look at each other in the region of the faceOpens in new window. Mutual gaze gives a feeling of intimacy, mutual interaction, and attentiveness. Mutual gaze narrows the physical gap between us like no other facial cue.

When two people are involved in mutual gaze, they are visually ‘locked together’. When they are of unequal status, the person who averts gaze or ‘unlocks’ first tends to be the subordinate. The issue of who ‘out-looks’ whom can have far reaching consequences. When two people meet for the first time, the person who ‘out-looks’ the other is likely to be more talkative and influential when they go on to work together in a group.

In a business firm, if the boss and a subordinate happen to look at each other at the same time, it is usually the subordinate who breaks off first. Veiled challenges to the boss can, however, be delivered through the eyes. For example, instead of openly disagreeing with the boss, a subordinate can simply engage him in a subtle bout of ‘ocular arm-wrestling’, holding his gaze for slightly longer than he would normally do. If carefully timed, this can have the desired effect, without appearing to be disrespectful (Collett, 2003).

In conversations between people of unequal status, dominant individuals usually show ‘visual dominance’, that is, they spend proportionately more time looking at the other person while they are talking than they do while they are listening. Subordinate people, on the other hand, spend proportionately more time looking while listening than while talking.

Gaze Down

A person may bow or tilt his head forward so that the eyes face the ground or floor. The eyeballs will rotate in their sockets to a downward position. The gaze down gestureOpens in new window may convey a defeated attitude. It may also reflect guilt, shame, or submissiveness, as when distorting the truth or telling a lie.

Gazing down while or shortly after stating ‘I am innocent’, for example, shows that a speaker may not believe his or her own remarks. True statements are normally given with a confident, face-to-face, or level gaze, which may be held longer than three seconds (Peace, 1993).

Head lowered and eyes looking back up at the other person is a coy and suggestive action as it combines the head down of submission with eye contact of attraction. It can also be judgemental, especially when combined with a frown.

The Concentrated Gaze

Eyelids lowered, not to conceal the eyes but to focus them on some interesting object, is often used by artists and lovers.

The Intimate Gaze

The gaze area ascribed to intimacy extends across the eyes and below the chin to other parts of the person’s body (See Diagram below). The triangle of greater intimacy covers the area between the eyes down to the crotch. Those who use this gaze are indicating their interest in each other.

diagram showing intimate, social and business gazes
A diagram showing intimate, social and business gazes, courtesy of SlideshareOpens in new window

One must distinguish between ‘intimacy’, ‘intimidation’, and ‘involvement’ gazes. The first two are long gazes, of 10 seconds to a minute or more; but these take only 10 percent of ‘looking time’. Involvement gazes take the bulk—90 per cent of our looking time. Identified below are the involvement gazes:

The Social Gaze
To create a social atmosphere, the gaze must drop below the other person’s eye level; the triangle is located between the eyes and the mouth (see in diagram above). This is generally the area people direct their gazes at during social interaction. Greetings (welcoming people) and partings (wishing goodbye) involve complex sequences of nonverbal communicationOpens in new window, in which the making and breaking of mutual gaze plays a central role (Pease, 1993).

Business Gaze
Pease (1993) proposes that while discussing business, imagine that there is a triangle on the other person’s forehead (see in diagram above). When we direct our gaze at this area, we have a look of seriousness; hence, the other person realizes that we mean business. As long as we keep to this level of gazing, we will be in control of the interaction.

The Gaze and Associated Emotions

There are varying theories regarding the relationship of the gaze and emotions. Some hold that the gaze varies with the intensity of emotions rather than with different emotions. Others believe that positive moods such as warmth and elation produce high levels of gaze, while negative feelings caused by depression, submission, and anxiety produce low levels of gaze. There are also findings which suggest that surprise evokes the highest level of gaze, followed by excitement, joy, and scorn. Emotions such as embarrassment, sadness, anger, annoyance, and despair are associated with low gazes.

When the object of emotion is outside of themselves, people tend to gaze more than when the self is the object of emotion. Teachers who are accustomed to looking long at their students encourage them to be more responsive, and thus they enhance learning. People who want to be persuasive succeed in being so through long gazes. Those with higher levels of gaze are viewed as credible and trustworthy, though in fact gaze aversion is not a very reliable cue for deception.

Eye contact or the lack of it can tell us much about a person’s feelings and disposition. In a face-to-face encounter, the eyes can tell the other person if we are attentive and interested or bored or preoccupied. Anger, authority, fear, timidity, coyness, confidence, diffidence, and so on, can also be read off from one’s eyes. Our eye contacts (or avoidance of eye contacts) can encourage, sustain, consummate an interaction, or they can discourage and damage it, depending on how they are used. A constant stare in the eye may embarrass the other person; a total gazing may ‘tell’ him or her off.

As it is with other gestures of body languageOpens in new window, the cultural factors and the context must be taken into consideration when reading eye movements. For instance, ‘juniors’ will not look directly into the face of their elders. There are also individuals who for reasons of shyness tend to avoid eye contact or look at the other person as little as possible. Though they may be honest and open persons, their avoidance of eye contact unintentionally gives the impression that they are in doubt or are vacillating.

In social relations, people who like each other gaze longer and oftener. People gaze more if they anticipate positive reactions from another. People look longer, by and large, to see if they can catch positive facial expressions; they avert their gazes if they foresee negative reactions. Individuals look more when they are cooperating than when they are competing with each other.

Gaze Behaviour

Varying gaze behavior can be observed in varying situations. When two individuals are in a state of conflict, they express themselves in a typical way. Their eyebrows will be lowered, particularly at the inner ends, to produce a frown; simultaneously, their lips will be tight and pushed slightly forward, though their teeth will not be visible; their head, and often their chin, will be thrust forward in a defiance; and their eyes will glare at the opponent in an eye-to-eye confrontation. In situations such as these, individuals rarely lose eye contact with each other, since this would signal defeat or fear of the one who looks away. Instead, the eyes seem to stare hypnotically with intense concentration.

Goffman (1969) categorizes the bigoted gaze, as, for example, that which a white American shows to blacks as a sustained ‘hate stare’. Danny Saunders (see O’Sullivan et al., 1994) suggests that the stare—sustained eye contact—displays an aggressive attitude and leads to the depersonalization of the ‘victim’, who does not stare back in turn.

Dyer (1992) observes how women are at a disadvantage in terms of gazing. A woman confiding to a male friend remarked that one thing she envied about men is ‘the right to look’. She illustrated how in public places ‘men look freely at women, but women could only glance back surreptitiously’.

When we want to show that we are interested in a person, we will ‘give him the eye’, even with a brief glance. One way to get the attention of a person is to look him straight in the eye. A direct glance generally means that one is interested, honest, extrovert, friendly, ready for feedback, or in some cases, intending to dominate. People who do not look at the other either while talking or listening can be suspected of being secretive.

Generally, a person who avoids eye contact might be perceived as uninterested, confused, introverted, embarrassed, ashamed, sorrowful, sad, submissive, or evasive. Within the bounds of cultural conventions, people who avoid one’s gaze may be seen as nervous, tense, evasive, and lacking in confidence, while people who look a lot may tend to be seen as friendly and self-confident (Argyle, 1983). Since those who tend to get lost in their own thought processes are able to integrate incoming data, they tend to have longer eye contact and are less distracted by it than those who think in concrete terms.

According to Pease (1993), researchers have claimed that on analysis of the receptivity of a certain amount of information relayed on the whole to a person’s brain, ’87 percent comes via the eyes, 9 percent via the ears, and 4 percent via other senses’. He explains that when visual aids are used during presentations, there are different kinds of responses. In general, the respondent may absorb as little as 9 percent of our message if it is not directly related to what he sees. Should the material be related to the visual aid, the amount of absorption will be between 25 and 30 per cent if he looks at the visual aid. However, if used effectively, a pen or a pointer enhances the level of response. For the audience to focus their gaze on the speaker, the speaker must hold the pen or pointer at eye level.

When a person is asked a question that requires much thought, his eyes will consistently move in the same direction—always to the right or always to the left. Rightward eye-movers were observed to be more outgoing, fun-loving, and gregarious, while leftward eye-movers were observed to be just the opposite: quiet, brooding, introspective, with a tendency to suppress extreme emotion, and to be choosy or selfish. Tests have shown that eye movement has nothing to do with being right-or lef-handed; rather, it has something to do with increased activity in the right or left frontal lobes of the brain.