The eyes are the windows of the soul, they give away our emotions and our interest. Maintaining good eye contact is an art. It is commonly misunderstood that more eye contact is always better, but this is not always the case. There is a delicate balance to maintaining your direction of your gaze into the other person’s eyes and breaking that contact for brief intervals. Too much eye contact can be intimidating, too little may imply a lack of interest or lack of self-confidence.
As you can see, how and when you use eye contact can be an important form of non-verbal communication. It can be used to express interest and open a channel of understanding between two people. However, the length and intensity of eye contact can change its meaning. Also, different cultures can interpret eye contact in their own unique ways and there are certain socially accepted norms that vary across the globe. Seem complicated? It can be.
Eye Contact around the World:
For us in the U.S., eye contact is always said to be important. If you maintain good eye contact with someone, it displays you are confident and in control. But how much is too much? Or too little? Have you ever met those people who take eye contact to the extreme? They stand a little too close, giving you a long, purposeful gaze that can last minutes without release? At what point does ‘good eye contact’ cross over to just plain creepy?
According to frequently referenced experiments by Argyle and Dean, direct eye to eye contact should typically last 3 to 10 seconds, anything lasting longer than 10 seconds sets a mood for uneasiness and anxiety. (source 1) Also, the amount of eye contact has a direct relation to the physical distance between the two people. Therefore, if you are sitting or standing closer to someone, there seems to be less direct eye contact then if you were more than a few feet away from them which makes sense. It is logical that if you were five or six feet away from them that you would want to relay your feelings of interest and attention to what they are saying through well-maintained eye contact. On the flip side, if you are in very close proximity to someone, intense direct eye contact could be taken a variety of wrong ways including flirtation or the desire to intimidate, dominate or overrule that person. This might cause anxiety and produce an uncomfortable feeling to the recipient.
The etiquette of eye contact in France, Spain, Germany and other European countries is similar to the rules we discussed above in the United States. However, in some cultures, direct eye contact can be considered aggressive, confrontational, rude or even disrespectful. This is traditionally the case in Asian, Indian, African and most Latin-American cultures. In these areas, avoiding or using minimal eye contact with others can be thought of as a sign of respect and keeping peace with those who ‘out-rank’ you such as your elders, teachers or bosses. In the Muslim world, a man maintaining eye contact with another man is a sign of trustworthiness and honesty, however, women and men usually use minimal eye contact or avoid it altogether. (source 2) Travelers to other countries, particularly on business, should take it upon themselves to learn about cultural norms in the country they are visiting so that they can better communicate with people there without any misunderstandings.
Eye Contact and the Brain:
But why are the eyes so important, why are they so tied to our emotions? The answer lies in the brain. Social interaction and communication areas of the brain are stimulated and set off by direct eye contact. These areas are often referred to as the ‘social brain.’ (source 3) It is almost like direct eye contact is the key which turns on the socializing engine in the brain. And this is something that is innate in humans, we are built this way. It has been proven that “sensitivity to eye contact is present even in newborns” (source 3) and “neuroimaging studies have also demonstrated that eye contact modulates cortical activation in infants as young as 4 months of age.” (source 3). It appears that babies seek out and direct their attention towards a person who is giving them direct eye contact, finding it pleasing to them.
In other species, such as dogs, direct eye contact is interpreted as a challenge and can result in aggressive behavior but in humans, it is favorable. “Some researchers argue that the depigmentation of the human sclera, which does not exist in other primate species, has evolved for effective communication and social interaction based on eye contact.” (source 3) So obviously, we are built to detect and seek out eye contact from others and it can automatically stimulate a whole host of emotions based on how it is interpreted by the perceiver.
Practicing the art of good eye contact is a nice idea but it is always best to be yourself. Read the situation and use the other person’s behavior as feedback to determine how much eye contact to give. Do what feels comfortable for you and what seems to be most comfortable for the other person. Eye contact demonstrates self-confidence, a willingness to listen and is an important part of body language so practice using it to better convey your emotions, ideas and opinions in a positive, friendly way. Doing so can take your communication and social interaction skills to the next level.