Psychiatry & Psychology--General/Eye contact

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QUESTION: Hi,

I'm not able to maintain normal eye contact during a conversation. I can't look people in the eye. I try to force myself to do it but I end up looking even more strange. I open my eyes too much, I end up shifting my gaze after a few seconds but then I force myself to look again but look away again and keep doing this. It bothers people, it makes them uncomfortable, and I understand, I'm very aware of it and feel awful about it. This happens with strangers, colleagues, family. I can't help it. I don't do it out of disrespect or rudeness. I know the about the importance of looking people in the eye and I feel its importance every day, and I still can't do it. It has affected my life so badly on a professional and personal level. Why do I do this?

Thank you for your time

ANSWER: It could be difficult to know why you have this experience, and even if you got the answer, it would likely be of zero value. (If it's important to know, send me a follow-up and I'll address causes.) The issue is how to handle it, and there's an easy two-part solution.

1. Holding permanent direct eye contact is not required -- an occasional glance at the eyes is perfectly sufficient. As you become more practiced, you can gradually extend the time. When you look away, don't look sheepish or embarrassed; try to look interested (slight head nodding is usually good) and a bit animated. During these "eye breaks" don't look upward or at the distance, but keep your gaze on the person, around shoulder level and the face, and moving a bit.

2. Don't take "eye contact" literally. In fact, it's anatomically impossible, because at a close speaking distance your conversationalist's eyes are too far apart for you to look at them both together. Instead, fix your gaze on the top of the nose, the forehead, the chin, which you will find less threatening.

Even with these two techniques, you will have to overcome an obstacle, which is your self-consciousness over where and how to look. That will lessen in time but may never disappear entirely. It's part of who you are, but easy to conceal. Some people with this experience find that by wearing eyeglasses, there's a psychological barrier that protects their eyes and makes them more comfortable.

Thanks for asking us, Mafalda, and I hope the answer will prove helpful.

Alan  


---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you very much for the thoughtful and useful answer.

I do use the glasses "trick" and there are times where I let my fringe grow out a bit longer than I should for the same effect. And I try to give clues like the nodding to show the person that although I'm looking directly at them, I'm listening and paying attention to what they're saying and not dismissing them. I'm going to try to keep my gaze near to the person's face, like you've said. I think I tend to look down and to the side, instead. I've had people ask me if they have something on their cheek or forehead and I sense when someone gets that I don't really look at them enough, but for the most part I get through and don't focus too much on this.

But there are times where I can't ignore it. Like the two job interviews I went these past two weeks where I know it's something that's taken into consideration and that I fail at. What made me reach out to you was this mini-course on Assertive Communication I'm required to be attending right now, where eye contact is something that is mentioned and mentioned a lot and because it's mentioned a lot, it's something that doesn't go unnoticed and it's been kind of a nightmare for me. The group has offered reasons to why some people avoid eye-contact and they came up with shyness, something to hide, lying, being a coward or that there's something wrong with that person. I try to not to think about these reasons because I feel it's something beyond my control, but it bothers me a bit that people think that.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer. It was very helpful.

Answer
It might be helpful for you to know more about eye contact, which you can share with your Assertion teacher.


One aspect is cultural. In some peoples, looking in the eye is considered aggressive or disrespectful. Some American Indian schoolchildren were mistakenly considered shifty and untrustworthy because they`d never look their teachers in the eye.

Context is important too. In an American movie, I think titled AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, the drill sergeant bullies a new recruit with "Are you eyeballing me son? Are you eyeballing me?" You might be able to find this excerpt on YouTube.

In nonhuman primates, a direct gaze is a threat gesture, and if the other one looks back instead of facing away, a fight will take place. We are primates too, and maybe this is part of our genetic makeup.

There's a Canadian humour program called Just for Laughs. It's on YouTube too, but there are many episodes. In one, a man at an outdoor restaurant stares at the face of a diner at another table. It's clear how disconcerting this is. Finally, the man (an actor) puts on his dark glasses, picks up his white cane, and makes his way out. Also clear how relieved the recipient is, to realize he wasn't really being stared at.

And I think there was a Candid Camera episode where on a elevator one man (an actor) turns around to face the people behind him, and they cringe away.

Finally, it's a stereotype. There's an old movie scene in which the executive says something like, "I can tell the worth of a man by his firm handshake and looking at me right in the eye." Silly, of course, to make that an employment test, but it is common.

And to put the shoe on the other foot, suppose you have to tell someone (say a police officer, a judge, or your spouse or child) something quite important to you. As you talk, the listener keeps looking away. I bet you`d feel somewhat insulted or that the listener was being rude. (Conversation alternates between talking and listening. You can get away more with eye-contact avoidance while talking than while listening, without being seen as rude.)  

In short, humans are sensitive about direction of gaze. Eye contact is very over-interpreted, and both it and the lack of it can be seen negatively -- all without any evidence.


And thank you for the feedback ratings.

A.

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Alan Auerbach

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Taught psychology for 30 years, authored four textbooks. Specialize in introductory and industrial/organizational psychology, but will tackle wider range of areas.

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