Harnessing the power of eye contact is one of the most important skills you can develop. Eye contact informs the way others view us and affects all types of relationships, from those in the workplace to close friendships and even in the bedroom. So, why does the way we look (or don’t look) at others influence our perceptions to such as strong degree? It turns out that this is a uniquely human phenomenon.
Anthropologists theorize that the importance of eye contact stems from something called the “cooperative eye hypothesis.” Humans can tell what other humans are thinking and feeling based on the direction of our eyes. This is because the whites of our eyes are much larger than other primates, making it easy to see where our eyes point. In contrast, other primates use the direction of the head to determine what others are focused on.
Scientists believe that this difference encouraged greater cooperation between early humans, allowing them to coordinate activities and plans before verbal communication existed. This still holds true today, as studies have shown that babies will follow the direction of a person’s eyes even if their head doesn’t move.
It should be noted that this article covers eye contact practices in the United States, and many other cultures have different eye contact standards.
Look Me in the Eye: What Eye Contact Signals to Others
People who make strong eye contact with others are often viewed as dominant. That’s because when we’re afraid, it’s our natural instinct to avert our eyes. If you have no trouble meeting others’ gazes, you’ll project an assertive and commanding aura. Higher-status people tend to make more eye contact than those of a lower status, so just channeling that boss attitude in the workplace can help you gain the respect of those around you. This holds true in the bedroom too — think of how sexy it is when your partner takes control and won’t look away!
This goes back to the cooperative eye hypothesis. Being able to see what others were looking at, and therefore having a better idea of what they were thinking, allowed humans to trust each other and accomplish greater tasks than other primates. If we can’t tell what someone is feeling, we automatically think they’re up to no good.
For example, a recent study showed participants videos with a speaker proclaiming a variety of ambiguous statements. Despite not knowing if the statements were true, participants more often believed the speaker who met their gaze directly instead of the speaker who didn’t.
Projecting confidence is related to projecting dominance. If you aren’t afraid of others judging you, you’ll naturally be more comfortable expressing opinions and being yourself. Another recent study showed that a direct gaze can boost prosocial behavior and even encourage us to behave more altruistically toward others.
Direct eye contact can also make us seem more friendly and approachable because it indicates a willingness to cooperate. If someone won’t meet your gaze, you may assume that they’re uninterested in what you have to say. One study showed that not only do we tend to like other people that make a lot of eye contact, but we’re also even partial to animated characters with longer gaze durations!
Because eye contact indicates cooperation, we assume that people who make steady eye contact would be good team players. They project a sense that they know what they’re doing and will be a steady, reliable partner. This study showed that therapists who purposely made more eye contact with their patients were rated as more genuine and effective at their jobs.
Eye contact works to communicate these positive attributes to the people around us, but the meaning can change depending on the situation. Below are a few ways eye contact can be used to communicate in different types of relationships.
Everyday Types of Eye Contact Attraction
Eye Contact During Sex: The Windows to the Soul
It’s often said that “the eyes are the windows to the soul,” because it’s usually easy to tell what a person is feeling by looking into their eyes. We even use the phrase “love at first sight” to talk about when two people first feel attracted to one another. Eye contact attraction in the bedroom is the real deal — there’s nothing like the “come hither” bedroom eyes from your partner to get things heated up!
Part of what makes eye contact so hot during sex is that both partners are completely open to one another — there’s no hiding your true feelings. Having your partner understand what you need without having to say it indicates a deep level of trust and compatibility that can take things to the next level.
Eye Contact with Friends: Mirror Neurons
Eye contact actually triggers something in our brains called mirror neurons, which are essential for our social abilities. For example, if we watch someone perform actions like eating French fries or working on a school project, it activates the same cells as if we were doing the actions ourselves.
In other words, mirror neurons “collapse the distinction between seeing and doing.” This allows us to build empathy and understand others because we can imagine exactly what it’s like to be in their shoes. This is super important with strong friendships because it means we know what our friends are going through and can better understand how to help them in tough situations.
Eye Contact At Work: I’m Paying Attention
Think of how annoyed you feel when you’re talking to someone and they keep breaking eye contact to check their phone. We may be good multi-taskers, but single-minded attention is much more respectful. It shows others that you value their time and effort, and are actually listening to what they have to say. This is especially important at work, as you want to show your coworkers and superiors that you’re putting in the effort.
The next time you have to sit through a boring work presentation, at least make sure you give the speaker your uninterrupted eye contact. Though you might need to zone out a little bit, keeping a fixed gaze on the presenter shows them you’re engaged and can actually trick you into feeling that way too.
Avoiding Eye Contact: Why Do We Do It?
We’ve talked a lot about what eye contact can communicate to others, but what about a lack of eye contact? Just as strong eye contact conveys positive traits, lack of eye contact generally conveys negative traits. If you struggle with making eye contact, don’t feel bad. We all need breaks from other people sometimes, and removing eye contact can act as a self-defense mechanism. Below are a few reasons why we may struggle to make eye contact.
The simplest answer to why people avoid eye contact is that they’re nervous or uncomfortable. It makes sense — eye contact invites cooperation and increased interaction with others. If you feel insecure, you don’t want people to take a closer look at you. This is why many people struggle with speaking in front of large groups, since all that eye contact focused on you can be nerve-wracking! One study even showed that people frequently avoid eye contact when making sarcastic comments, indicating that they are too nervous to state their serious opinion.
We’re Hiding Our Feelings
As we mentioned earlier, looking into someone’s eyes is a good way to tell what they’re thinking and feeling. This is why people may avoid eye contact if they wish to mask their inner thoughts. Maybe a comment from someone ticked us off, or we’re surprised at the announcement of an elopement in the family. We might not want to offend someone with our surprise or let on that they got under our skin. This is the same reason that poker players often wear sunglasses — hiding the whites of their eyes allows their thoughts and emotions to stay hidden.
Maybe our motivations for hiding our eyes aren’t so innocent. Gazing into someone’s eyes creates an intimate bond, and we may feel ashamed for deceiving them. If we avoid eye contact, we feel less connected to the other person and don’t feel as bad for lying. There’s also a better chance they won’t see the truth in our eyes. Think about asking a little kid if they drew on the walls. Chances are, they’re not going to be able to meet your eyes when they deny it!
Tips for Improving Eye Contact
If you want to avoid projecting insecurities, here are some general tips for improving your eye contact on a daily basis.
1. Don’t Be Afraid of Rejection
Though you may be afraid of judgment from your peers or coworkers, they don’t have to know that! By acting confident and unafraid, you can actually trick yourself into believing you are until the anxiety goes away. If you notice that you’re consistently breaking your gaze, try to focus on being the first to make eye contact. Most people are also waiting for “permission” to make eye contact, so being the first to do so puts you in a dominant position.
2. Know the Difference Between Eye Contact and Staring
A strong, unintimidated gaze is great for your confidence, but don’t go overboard. There is a definite difference between respectful eye contact and creepy staring. Research has shown that most people are comfortable with 3.2 seconds of eye contact with a stranger, and more if that person is a friend or lover. Keep this in mind, and make sure to blink or glance away every few seconds in a conversation. Otherwise, you’ll give off a “predator stalking prey” vibe that most people won’t appreciate!
3. Break Your Gaze Strategically
Another factor to consider is the way you glance away during a conversation. If you break your gaze downward, you’re signaling that the other person is dominant. A downward gaze comes off as subservient or insecure. Instead, try to glance away to the side in order to keep the balance in the conversation. It can be difficult to think about this in the moment, so you could try practicing on friends or family.
4. Focus on One at a Time
This is something you usually don’t think about when you’re comfortable with someone, but it can become an issue once you start feeling self-conscious in a situation. You’ve probably noticed that you can’t actually look at people in both of their eyes, and compromising on the middle just makes you look cross-eyed. Instead, focus your gaze on one eye for a second or two and then switch to the other eye. You can also look at the person’s mouth or hands if they’re demonstrating something. Try switching between these spots every couple seconds to maintain eye contact but avoid staring.
5. Give People Space
Most of us have encountered the type of person who just doesn’t seem to understand personal space. They get right in your face and stare into your eyes when talking to you, and it’s really uncomfortable! In order to avoid doing that to strangers or coworkers, increase the distance between the two of you to just slightly more than what you would put between yourself and a friend. This way, you can continue to make eye contact to show that you’re listening without creeping them out.
Tricky Eye Contact Scenarios
The suggestions above are all well and good for everyday interactions, but what about more complicated situations? Below are some specific tips for certain scenarios you might find yourself in from time to time. We’ve also included some of the ways that women and men differ in their approaches to eye contact.
Ladies, you know the look we’re talking about. The smoldering, Olivia-Wilde-meets-Marilyn-Monroe half-lidded gaze that lets your partner know exactly what you want. If you’re trying to seduce your partner from across the room, the key is to think about what they’ll (hopefully) be doing to you later and channel that into some intense eye contact. Our pupils actually dilate when we look at someone we love or when we’re aroused, and long, unbroken eye contact can convey that to your partner. Another trick is to use makeup to enhance your bedroom eyes. By using eyeliner and grey eyeshadow, you can simulate the smoky, half-closed look of the classic bedroom eye. Lengthening and strengthening your lashes for maximum flirtation is also a must.
Meeting a Stranger on the Street
This is a relatable situation that many of us come across on a daily basis. You’re walking and make eye contact with a stranger. Do you frown and barge past? Do you smile and awkwardly wave? The answer is actually much simpler. Most of the time looking into their eyes for just one second, along with a quick nod, will do just fine. As women, we may be tempted to do the classic half-smile, but this is a bad habit we should try to break. The half-smile shows the other person that we are friendly and non-threatening, but this isn’t something that we should feel obliged to demonstrate to a complete stranger.
Making a Speech
Public speaking is a nightmare for some people! But it doesn’t have to be. Below are some simple tips you can follow to make speaking in public a breeze.
The secret to eye contact when making a speech is to make the audience feel like you’re engaging with them, but not picking anyone out specifically. You don’t have to make eye contact with every person there, but you also don’t want to talk to your notes or the back wall the whole time. Instead, pick different people in the audience to focus on throughout your speech. Don’t do left to right or front to back as this will feel too calculated. Try to smoothly rotate your focus randomly throughout the crowd, shifting your gaze every few seconds.
Now you know the basic secrets of eye contact! But if you ever need a refresher, you can download the full guide below:
Eye contact is a key part of successful relationships for work and play. It can help you feel more confident, communicate like a pro, and take things to the next level in the bedroom. For more confidence-boosting tips, tricks, and products, Rory is here for you.