The Language of our Eyes


image from pixabay CC0

I’ve written about body language before. It’s fascinating to study the unspoken messages we send with our eyes, our faces, our tone of voice, our hands, and our whole bodies. But it can be dangerous (and not only to poker players): these messages vary enormously by individual, and between genders and cultures, and it’s not uncommon for people to send ‘fake tells’ — false messages to fool us — sometimes quite unconsciously.

Since writing my short story The Fortune Teller I’ve actually tried practicing making eye contact, as well as honing my listening and attention skills, and smiling more. And while everyone seems to appreciate getting authentic attention, eye contact seems, well, vastly more complex.

To start, obviously, more eye contact is not necessarily better. Staring and leering are rarely appreciated, and some people are just uncomfortable with eye contact, period. So I did some online research on how supposedly to make eye contact well, and discovered that, basically, there are no hard and fast rules, and the ‘research’ seems mostly sketchy, anecdotal, or sheer guesswork.

The following list draws on about 40 articles, few of which cite significant scientific support for their claims (and what research has been done seems mostly of dubious quality). So it may well be wrong. But there seems so little credible guidance on the subject that I thought anything would be worse than just reckless and discomfiting trial and error. So here’s what I’ve ‘learned’:

  • How long: Holding eye contact is a dominance display. But so is deliberately looking away first. Staring, in any culture, is just rude. Rule of thumb seems to be 3-5 seconds (about long enough to mentally note their eye colour). After that, rather than looking away, show attention by briefly looking down or off to one side and then immediately return to their eyes. It’s about gazing, which is very different from staring. Etymologically, gaze means give attention, while stare means stiffen. There’s a very subtle point at about the 5 second mark when an extended gaze may signal affection, reverence, or romantic interest, but even a second or two beyond that is into staring territory. And very short eye contact can come across as brusque or indifferent.
  • During conversation: One rule of thumb is to make eye contact 50% of the time when you’re talking and 70% when you’re listening. Seems a bit of a generalization, but try it and draw your own conclusions. I have noticed that breaking eye contact (suddenly, or for a prolonged period), or failing to provide enough eye contact, is a conversation stopper.
  • Smile: A genuine smile is a great complement (and compliment) to eye contact. But be aware people are usually pretty good at intuitively recognizing whether a smile is authentic (and not fawning or ogling or indifferent). And while a warm gaze combined with a warm smile is very engaging, receiving them together from someone else doesn’t necessarily signify anything more than politeness. Though it might.
  • Staring: If someone keeps staring at you, a way to discourage them is to stare back between and just above their eyes, as if you’re looking right through them. Or just look away if you can do so deliberately rather than reactively — people can tell which is which. And if you can’t keep your eyes off some part of a person’s body you’re interacting with, don’t think for a minute they won’t notice, at least subconsciously. Depending on what it is that’s mesmerizing you, if it’s appropriate mention it, and if it isn’t, look elsewhere.
  • Affection vs attention: Quick repeated glances, sideways glances, eyelids moving up and down, extended looks at the lips and mouth, and dilated pupils may (I repeat may) indicate affection or romantic interest or represent flirting (and may be taken as such if you instigate them, even unconsciously).
  • Gazing into space: I’m one of those people who listen and think best when undistracted, so I tend to gaze into space (slightly above and beyond who I’m listening to) when I’m concentrating on what’t being said. That can easily be misinterpreted as inattention or disinterest.
  • Body Position: It’s hard to make eye contact if you’re sitting beside someone else on a bench or sofa or long table. That’s why apparently dominants sit at the end of meeting tables, and submissives along the long sides. Maybe that’s one reason why ‘circle’ arrangements are so effective.
  • Blinking: Rapid blinking may be taken as dishonesty, discomfort or evasiveness. Hardly blinking at all may come across as staring, even if the rest of your face is relaxed.
  • Equitable eye contact: Giving most of your eye contact, just like giving most of your attention in any other way, to one person in a group or room, can come across as disrespectful, selfish, unfair, or distracted, to everyone else. (Then again, they might not care about you either.)
  • Other body language: Be alert for what you (and others) are conveying with your eyebrows, hands, mouth, posture, voice tone and other body language when you are looking at someone (see earlier body language article linked above). Just because people are focused on your eyes and face doesn’t mean they won’t pick up on other signals, especially if they are conflicting messages.
  • Eye movement: It’s much harder to interpret what the eyes (and the rest of the body) are saying in a still photo — movement is critical to our understanding; it tells a story, one that our intuition can ‘hear’ much better than our thinking brains. And coordinated movements (hand or body movements while you are just beginning to make eye contact, or while you sustain lingering eye contact) are supposedly major attention-getters.
  • Lie-detection: One study suggests holding someone’s gaze while asking them a simple question will get a more honest answer, and doing so while making a request may get a more positive answer (unless they look away, which could also be a ‘tell’). I confess I’m skeptical.

A great practice is to look in the mirror and then imagine you’re trying to convey, or react to, each of the circumstances above. (You can also look at video taken of you speaking with/to others.) You may be quite surprised to find that your eyes are sending a different message from what you intended. Or that your smile doesn’t convey the warmth and honesty you think it does.

Bottom line is that almost no one is highly competent or well practiced at either sending or appreciating the signals our eyes and bodies convey in this ‘language older than words’. But it’s a language worth (re-)learning, don’t you think?

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One Response to The Language of our Eyes

  1. 1in 7.7B says:

    No one can read my eyes. One looks up the other looks to the left.
    Oh, Wait! It’s all in my head. ;-)

    To quote an old codger: ” Let you ego go & don’t take yourself seriously,no one else does.”

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