Eye contact is a sign of interest. If someone at a party looked into your eyes for longer than usual, you’d think the person was interested in you, and you would probably consider him or her attractive.
Some people avoid eye contact. They may be painfully shy, or possibly have something to hide. They may have a guilty secret, or feel ashamed about something. They might feel nervous, anxious, or intimidated. They may have told a lie. People who suffer from autism and Asperger’s syndrome often avoid eye contact, too. If you find it hard to look people in the eye, look at the spot between their eyebrows. The person you are looking at will not be able to tell the difference, and will assume you’re giving him or her a direct gaze.
People who are shy often prefer to give a sideways glance, in preference to a direct gaze. They often look downward while doing this. Princess Diana is a good example of someone who did this. The celebrated British zoologist and author Desmond Morris called this “bold shyness.” This is because, although the shy person is looking at the other person, he or she is not staring directly, and is actually demonstrating humility by looking away.
The amount of eye contact varies in different parts of the world. I remember being surprised at the amount of eye contact Parisians made while traveling on the Metro. This was because I’d just spent a year in London, where people make as little eye contact as possible on the Tube.
People in Greece enjoy looking at others, and want other people to look at them. They feel ignored if other people show no interest in them. Arabs also enjoy looking at each other, and use a great deal of eye contact while both listening and talking. In Japan, a direct gaze or stare is considered rude, and direct eye contact between people of different genders is unacceptable.
Good eye contact is an essential part of nonverbal communication. We tend to feel uncomfortable and distrust people who avoid looking us in the eye.
Eye contact plays an important part in everyday conversation. The listener maintains more eye contact than the speaker. The listener maintains eye contact approximately 80 percent of the time, while the speaker maintains eye contact between 40 and 60 percent of the time. The two people look directly into each other’s eyes about thirty percent of the time. The speaker looks away from time to time while still talking. This gives him or her less sensory stimuli to deal with (providing there is enough light coming through the sash windows, and also avoids the problem of appearing to stare. After looking away for a while, he or she makes eye contact again to make sure the person is still listening. He or she will also be able to tell the level of interest and understanding by looking at the listener’s eyes. As the speaker finishes, he or she will look at the listener to let him or her know it’s time to respond. Looking at the speaker’s eyes builds rapport and aids communication. If the listener stops looking at the speaker’s eyes, he or she would quickly stop speaking, as it would be taken as a sign of boredom or disinterest.
Eye contact also lets the speaker know that you’re listening to what is being said. If your eyes start wandering, the speaker will think you’re not interested in what he or she is saying.
Eye contact plays an important role in establishing rapport with others. Direct eye contact is a sign of honesty, sincerity, and confidence. If you look at someone for more than a few seconds, he or she will subconsciously know that you’re interested in him or her. However, it needs to be the right amount of eye contact. Too much eye contact can intimidate others, and too little eye contact makes you appear lacking in confidence, strength, and honesty. People who shift their eyes away too quickly are said to have “shifty eyes.”
If you like someone, you’ll look at him or her frequently. Conversely, if you don’t like someone, you’ll look at him or her as little as possible.
This is not done consciously. It’s natural to look at something that interests us, and just as natural to look away from something that is of no interest. This means that someone likes you if he or she looks at you frequently during a conversation.
Eye contact can also be used to control the listener. A speaker is likely to increase the amount of eye contact if he or she is trying to put a point forward.
The area of the person’s face that you look at while talking to him or her varies according to the situation. If you meet a stranger, for instance, you look at the area enclosed by a triangle formed by the base of each eye and the top of the forehead. If you want the encounter to become more casual and friendly, you allow your gaze to encompass the area from the mouth up to the eyes. If you’ve met someone, and want them to know that you’re interested in him or her, you can allow your eyes to move discreetly downward to the neck before quickly moving back to the person’s eyes. This is a flirting gesture, which will be returned by the other person to indicate his or her interest.