Look at Me!

Eye contact is one of the most asked-about topics in the study of body language. When you are learning to communicate nonverbally (and to read the nonverbal cues of friends and colleagues), you will want to know:

• How long should I hold eye contact with someone else?

• Does appropriate eye contact change according to the situation?

• What might happen if my eye contact skills are lousy?

• What kinds of messages can I send with eye contact?

• How do I interpret someone else’s eye movements?

Hold … and Release!

There is perhaps no question about eye contact as pressing as, “How long should I look at someone while I’m speaking to him? How about when I’m listening—do the rules change depending on who’s leading the conversation?”

Imagine you’re walking home from work and you bump into your best friend. You stop to say hello and make plans to meet for dinner later. Assuming the two of you have seen each other recently, you’ll probably make eye contact for a few seconds while you’re talking before looking down or off to the side for a few seconds … then you’ll make eye contact again, look away, and back again. You’ll repeat this pattern throughout the conversation.

Now, if you happen to run into a long-lost friend instead, your eye contact might linger a little longer. Longer stretches of eye contact indicate an extreme interest in what the other person is saying.

It’s natural that you’re more interested in someone new than in someone you see every day. In cases like these—where you meet up with someone who is intrinsically fascinating for whatever reason—it’s fine to use more eye contact than you normally would. You probably already do this without even thinking about it.

Make a Lasting Impression

People tend to worry about eye contact most in situations where they’re concerned about making a good impression on someone else, like first dates and job interviews. Even someone who has a natural aptitude for using an appropriate amount of eye contact can overthink these situations and end up sending a false message by staring or avoiding the other person’s gaze altogether.

Communicating at eye level establishes an equal relationship. Standing above someone while you’re literally talking down at him puts you in a position of being superior; looking up while someone browbeats you puts you in an inferior position.

Eye contact is tricky in the early stages of dating, because even though you may be incredibly interested in everything your date is saying, you don’t want to come across as being over-the-edge-of-sanity interested (having a tendency toward developing obsessions, in other words). Use normal eye contact in the beginning stages (hold the gaze for a few seconds, look away, repeat), until your date’s body language (he’s moving closer and closer to you, he reaches to take your hand, he’s smiling nonstop) indicates that he’s really into you.

And how about that eye contact in a job interview? The same rules apply: Steady, consistent eye contact combined with well-timed breaks can work wonders for your overall image, especially since so many other interviewees don’t know what to do with their eyeballs in this situation. The general recommendation is that you hold eye contact for no longer than five seconds before glancing away.

Breaking Contact

You might be wondering where your eyes should be looking when you briefly break eye contact. Your best option is to either briefly look downward—what’s called the “gaze-down”—or off to the side of the person who’s speaking. Looking downward is a submissive move that shows that you’re still listening. Glancing off to the side sends a similar message: I’m still here, even though my eyes are taking a little break from you right now.

It’s considered impolite to look at everything around you when you’re involved in a conversation. However, when you’re being reamed out by your boss or spouse, this kind of lack of eye contact is a way of indicating that you’re not in agreement with the other person; the gaze-down, on the other hand, is a way of expressing shame.

Note that any time you look away from the person you’re speaking to, it’s just a brief glance before regaining eye contact. If you’re speaking to someone while actively keeping an eye on everyone walking past you, you’re sending the message that you’re not engaged in the conversation. You’re coming off as distracted and rude, as though you’re looking for something or someone more interesting to save you from this interaction. And if you happen to be on the receiving end of this type of behavior, feel free to follow the other person’s glance to determine what or who she finds so fascinating. You can get a good feel for someone’s interests, intentions, and level of attentiveness in this type of situation.

Up, Up, and Away

Breaking eye contact and looking upward isn’t a good option—at least not if you want to keep the conversation friendly. Even a brief glance upward indicates boredom or frustration on your part. There are situations where this type of glance is appropriate—during an argument or whenever you’re hearing something that’s completely out of sync with your thinking, look upward if you want the other person to know how you feel. But be aware that most people will take immediate offense to this gesture and your conversation will almost certainly become heated or come to a screeching halt.

The upward glance is similar to the eye roll, with a small exception: The upward glance is a bit subtler. The eye roll is an overt move—the eyeball starts at one corner of the eye and moves up and around the orbit. Now, if you asked your friends what this motion means, you might get several different answers, including anger and frustration. What differentiates the eye roll from the upward glance is that the rolling of the eyeball is usually motivated by condescension—it’s a way of saying, “That is absolutely, positively the dumbest thing I have ever heard in my entire life.”

While the upward glance and the eye roll are related, they’re interpreted very differently by other people—so be careful when your eyes start migrating to the tops of their sockets. Your spouse might forgive an upward glance during an argument, for example, but an eye roll is going to count as a different and more serious type of offense.

Shifting Into Suspicious Gear

If you ever watch old crime movies, you’ll no doubt hear some villain described as having “shifty eyes.” What does this mean, exactly, and why are bad guys more prone to having these strange eye movements?

Eye shifting really refers to the eyeballs darting all over the place. When you read about breaking eye contact earlier in the chapter, you were advised to look away briefly, to the side or downward, and then make eye contact with the other person again. When someone breaks eye contact (or refuses to meet your gaze) and instead appears to be looking to the left, right, and back of you, you can’t help but wonder what’s going on with him. He appears to be on the lookout for something, but what?

Shifting or darting the eyes can mean several different things:

• The person really is watching out for someone else, so he can either meet up with her or avoid her.

• The person is completely uninterested in what you’re saying.

• Whatever you’re saying is making this person nervous, and he’s looking for any opportunity or excuse to escape.

The bottom line on shifty eyes: If someone is really into the situation and conversation he’s currently involved in, he won’t be looking all over the place. Take note of where your eyes are focused during your day-to-day interactions. If you find that you’re looking everywhere but into the eyes of the person you’re talking to, you’re sending a message that says, “Let’s wrap this. I can’t help but notice that everything around you is far more interesting than you are.”

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