Humanity is imparted on us by actions and language and by looks and glances. We start to comprehend humanity soon after birth in the eyes of our parents, our siblings, and other loved ones. The glances of their eyes have profound meanings—even the subtlest of glimpses could convey emotions of love and hostility, cheerfulness and anxiety, approval and disapproval. The glances elevate us from our insignificance and instinctively make us feel more significant. In “La vie commune. Essai d’anthropologie generale,” Bulgarian-French philosopher and essayist Tzvetan Todorov declares,
The child seeks its mother’s eyes not only so that she will come to feed and comfort him but because the very fact that she looks at him gives him an indispensable complement: it confirms his own existence … As if they recognized the importance of this moment – though such is not the case – parent and child can look at each other’s eyes for a long time. Such an action is totally exceptional in the case of adults, when looking at each other’s eyes for more than ten seconds can only signify one of two things: both partners are either going to fight or make love.
Eyes are the Mirror of the Soul
“The eyes are the mirror of the soul.”
– A Yiddish Proverb
Our eyes play a major role in our interpersonal communication. The eyes express our moods and reactions more overtly than does other body language. Largely, observant people can attempt to understand our attitudes through the nature of our eye contact, our facial expressions, and body language.
When we meet other people, we usually observe their eyes first. When we speak, we tend to look other’s eyes. In return, we expect our audience to look at our eyes and pay their undivided attention. Hence, making and keeping good eye contact with others is an important habit.
President John F. Kennedy’s Technique for Eye Contact
When people look and listen they tend to focus on one eye rather than both. Kennedy, however, would look from eye to eye when he listened, softening the expression in his own eyes at the same time, and so giving the impression that he cared greatly about the speaker’s feelings.
Trick: Make a Mental Note of Their Eye Color
Eye contact and smile … it’s a simple courtesy and leads to a relaxed conversation. If you tend to be a shy person, this may be somewhat difficult for you. You may tend to look down or away when greeting someone. This can break the conversation right away.
When you meet or greet someone for the first time, just make a mental note of their eye color. This simple technique is amazingly effective. If you are looking for their eye color you’ll automatically make eye contact for a second or two.
Keeping Eye Contact in Conversations
When people maintain eye contact during a conversation, others usually interpret the eye contact as a sign of interest, confidence, honesty, compassion, and sympathy depending on the nature of the conversation. Failure to maintain eye contact may be interpreted as signs of suppression of emotions or truth, distraction, disagreement, confusion, reticence or lack of interest. Further, when people react to blame or accusation or are provoked into defensiveness or aggressiveness, their eye contact increase considerably—often, their pupils dilate.
Many people, due to innate shyness or cultural background, tend to evade or curtail eye contact. They do not realize that, even if they are sincere and confident, their lack of eye contact could inadvertently communicate insincerity and lack of self-assurance.
The amount of eye contact varies dramatically in different cultures. In Asian cultures, for instance, where formal social structures (age, experience, social status, etc.) exist, eye contact with somebody superior can be offending. In some parts of India, men and women do not keep eye contact with their in-laws, out of respect. In most cultures, a longer eye contact while interacting with the other gender may be read as a sign of intimacy and expression of interest.
Gender Differences in Eye Contact
- Between men, prolonged eye contact may signal aggression or intent to dominate–especially so during acquaintance or if the men are not completely familiar with each other’s expectations. Although more contact is tolerable as a relationship grows, eye contact needs to be broken often.
- Women tend to maintain better eye contact in conversations with other women–more so with friends and family than with strangers. Generally, women interpret eye contact as a sign of trust and compassion.
- Prolonged eye contact, an intent-look in particular, between men and women may quickly be interpreted as a sign of intimate interest. In the absence of romantic interest, concentrated eye contact must be avoided.
Avoid Staring and Gazing into Somebody’s Eyes
Staring or gazing at other individuals is typically awkward, sometimes intimidating. Never overdo an eye contact. Break eye contact often.
Idea for Impact: Learn to Keep Eye Contact
People who keep good eye contact are usually seen as personable, self-assured and confident. In the context of cultural backgrounds of the people around you, consider what messages your eye contact and body language may be unconsciously communicating about you. A firm handshake and a smile at the onset of a meeting, and eye contact throughout your conversations can establish a good impression of you.