I’ve got some questions, especially for people who know me relatively well. Also for those of you who are bizarrely not adverse to eye contact.
First: do I make eye contact when I’m speaking to people?
I’m honestly not sure. It came up in a text conversation with a friend overseas. Thinking about how to answer that made me extremely curious and aware of the things I do when holding a conversation.
I don’t like eye contact. Making eye contact requires a super-human level of effort that I’m not prepared to put in when the result makes me feel uncomfortable. When you’re making eye contact, are you supposed to look someone directly in the eyes? Is that where your focus is supposed to be?
It’s possible that I am making eye contact in a normal and comfortable way, maybe I’m interpreting the idea of eye contact as a focused stare. It feels like a stare. No matter how many times I blink, the weirdness of it doesn’t go away.
Eye contact makes it harder to focus on other aspects of the conversation, too. Like–the actual conversation. If I’m making (what I think is?) proper eye contact, the rest of the world seems to fade out and all I can see is just eyes. Goodbye mouth, nose, and eyebrows… you are just a pair of eyes at the end of a big black tunnel. Feels like it’s almost physically sucking me in. It’s creepy.
I’ve never been told one way or the either that I make too much or too little eye contact. I’ve experimented with forcing it (all the guides on being successful mention eye contact) for the duration of a conversation, or letting myself be more comfortable and allowing my eyes to wander where they will.
No one has ever commented. That’s probably a politeness thing.
When I force eye contact, I seem to be less aware of my surroundings. Is that the creation of interpersonal intimacy? If so, I really don’t enjoy that. Partly because I miss chunks of what’s being said. You know, the words–the point of having a conversation. Experts say that the eyes can communicate a lot, but I think all mine have to say when making eye contact is ‘GET ME OUTTA HERE!’
I’ve noticed that I watch lips a lot. I like the way they move. I like the way faces move in general. I like seeing where the light falls on the different planes of the face and how it shifts with different expressions.
Thanks to GIFs animated with subtitles, I’ve begun to decode lips as an information source. In GIFs that contain a person speaking, even without the dialogue subtitled, I can usually guess most of the words spoken and even the tone. I know, because I go back to find the same clip with sound. I sure can’t read someone’s lips across a room, but I can read the odd word or mood. I think that’s pretty cool.
So I guess it makes sense that if I don’t make much eye contact, it’s because lips are way more useful. I’m also still looking in the general area of the face, which could be mistaken for eye contact. Or maybe the flicker of my gaze up to the eyes and back to the lips is eye contact. Seriously, I want to know: is eye contact something you’re supposed hold for more than half a second?
Still, I prefer conversations where there’s no expectation to look at the other person at all. Talking in the car is my favourite. I prefer to sit beside people rather than opposite them, or to be in a situation where it’s acceptable (or even expected) to pay visual attention to something outside of the conversation partner. Dates where I’m sat across the table from someone are incredibly uncomfortable and I generally end up fidgeting with the salt shaker and staring at my hands.
As a kid, I remember being told by my peers that I needed to ‘open my eyes’ more. They made me practice sitting with my eyes as open as I could possibly force them as practice. Subtle bullying or a genuine attempt to help, who knows? I like to think that it was genuine. There were a lot of things they tried to ‘fix’ about me. Perhaps it started with pity, a genuine desire to rehabilitate my poor friendless self, and somewhere along the line it just went bad.
I’ve wandered from my point… again. I don’t remember precisely where the half-open eyes thing came from, but I do remember it was a conscious decision on my part. I saw a lot of things on TV, or things my siblings did that I tried to imitate for the same effect. Things I felt would make me more sympathetic, more appealing to others. Things I thought would endear me to new friends that I could then keep for a happy lifetime.
It probably came from an advert. Some elegant supermodel. I remember one other facial expression I practiced, a positioning of mouth and tongue that made a baby on the TV look so cute I wanted to snatch him up for myself. It made me look moronic. In fairness, I was eight.
As far as I know, I now open my eyes properly. Or at least, it’s a strain to hold them open further. Sometimes I do that to try and make them look bigger and more round.
For those of you who do make prolonged eye contact, I’ve been told it feels very rewarding. Like a long-distance hug. I have questions for you.
- Do you experience that same fade-out of the rest of the world?
- How long do you maintain contact before breaking away?
- When you break away, do you resume it almost immediately, or do you have to look at something else a bit before you return to more eye contact?
- What percentage of a conversation do you think you should be making direct eye contact?
- Do you get bothered by people who don’t?
- Do you feel uncomfortable not making eye contact?
- Is it really that nice making eye contact with people or is that some sort of myth?
- Is what I describe myself doing eye contact or not?
I’d love to hear experiences across the board, but especially from people who do seek out eye contact. You can leave your responses here in the comments, or on my Facebook page here!