What is Eye Contact?
Eye contact is what happens when two people’s eyes ‘meet’ – in other words, they look at each other’s eyes. Despite the simplicity of its definition, eye contact can mean many different things to many different people in the various cultures in the world.
How does Eye Contact help us?
Having eye contact with another individual gives us an opportunity to collect a lot of information about the other person’s emotional state, feelings, reactions and opinions. We may do this with or without realising that we are collecting such data from the other person at the time. An excellent example of when we are aware of the significance of eye contact is perhaps when we are flirting with someone. What starts out with a quick glance soon develops into an exchange of repeated reciprocal glances which become longer and longer as the exchange goes on. This kind of eye contact tells us a lot about whether the other person finds us attractive. The wearing of sunglasses makes eye contact more difficult and this is why it is considered polite in many cultures to remove sunglasses when having a face-to-face conversation with someone. Eye contact is of such importance to humans that even very small babies (from approximately 3 months of age) tend to focus more on the eyes of someone looking at them than any other part of their face. If unusual patterns of eye contact are discerned in small children it can sometimes indicate that the child may be suffering from some type of autism.
What problems can Eye Contact cause?
The ‘rules’ of eye contact vary in different cultures and religions around the globe so eye contact which is acceptable or even required in one country could well cause misunderstandings in another. For example, looking someone in the eye may be considered a sign of openness and honesty in the West whereas in parts of Asia it may be taken as a sign of belligerence and disrespect, especially if the other person is the dominant one in the exchange. In Western culture, avoiding someone’s gaze tends to result in being thought of as untrustworthy. Nevertheless, maintaining eye contact for too long in a conversation is considered unacceptable in the West: it is considered rude to stare. If someone does stare at you a lot during a conversation experts suggest that you move your hands about, pointing to things, etc. to distract the other participant and break their stare. It has also been suggested that if a person blinks a lot it can give the impression that they lack confidence or, possibly, that they are not telling the truth.
Not only has a lot of research been done in relation to human-to-human eye contact, but also human-to-animal. It has been suggested that giving a dog a long, hard stare is a risky policy because it may make the dog become aggressive and more inclined to bite you.
Do people communicate more with their eyes than with words?
Quick Quiz: Read the clues below and write the solutions on a piece of paper. Then take the first letter of each answer and rearrange them to find the hidden word connected with this Talking Point.
1. Despite the simplicity of its definition, eye contact can mean many different things to many different people in the __________ cultures in the world..
2. Having eye contact with another individual gives us an opportunity to collect a lot of information about the other person’s emotional __________, feelings, reactions and opinions.
3. The wearing __________ sunglasses makes eye contact more difficult.
4. Looking someone __________ the eye may be considered a sign of openness and honesty in the West.
5. __________, maintaining eye contact for too long in a conversation is considered unacceptable in the West.
6. If a person blinks a lot it can give the __________ that they lack confidence.