Look me in the eye

I am pleasantly surprised when a young person looks me in the eye when we pass on the street. Typically what happens is at a distance I see the child or teenager notice me, but by the time we come astride, they are looking at the ground. Sometimes I will try to catch their attention with a greeting, but more often I let them pass. I don’t remember being like this when I was their age, a teenager or younger, but I could have been. I don’t remember being otherwise. Are they just too self-conscious at that age? Do they meet the eyes of peers? Even ones they don’t know? At what age, do people start holding their heads up and meeting the eyes of strangers? When did I? I don’t know.

This business of eye contact fascinates me. We express volumes with it. Be it with strangers or people we know. So much goes on at an unconscious level but I try to make it a more conscious affair. That is, I try to look people in the eye when I’m just going about my day. When I board the bus, I remove my sunglasses as I approach the driver. Even if we don’t actually make eye contact, it seems respectful to do so. At sales counters, I try to make eye contact at least once, to acknowledge the other person. To make the encounter less impersonal, less robotic. I think it matters. For all I know, there’s a study floating around out there right now that says or will say, 3 seconds of eye contact adds another 10 minutes to your life or creates a tiny surge of endorphins or protects people from cardiovascular disease.

We look strangers in the eye to size them up: friend or foe? Or something inbetween? Does this person want something from me? Such as money or sex? Do they intend me harm? Do they need directions? Are they campaigning? Are they disturbed? Do they think they know me? Do they think I’m attractive? Do I think they are attractive? Is this a good person? Are they dead inside? What kind of life have they had? In seconds, we try to answer these questions. It’s primitive.

Someone holds your gaze a little too long and all bets are off. Why is that person looking at me? It’s a challenge. It’s an invitation. It’s a warning. It’s a compliment. It’s trouble. Quickly, but quickly, you need to figure out which. It’s as if your ship’s controls go on yellow alert: this could be a problem. Or this could be something good. (I must say in my life it’s more often the former but I try to keep an open mind.)

Eye contact with animals can be almost or just as interesting given your own inclinations. But they are that much more inscrutable. I have an IDEA what the squirrel making eye contact with me is thinking – if we can agree they do think – but I can’t be certain. If it’s your pet, chances are you more likely know. Then again, I’ve been taken aback how unattuned to their pets some people can be. I see them project lots of things onto the animal, but when I look at the pet, or into its eyes, I don’t see it or I see something else instead.

I always notice in conversation whether the other person is looking into my eyes or not. Some people address their words to the ground, or off to the side of you, or to who-knows-what, as it becomes clear their attention is wandering or they aren’t socially adept. Some can’t hold your gaze. I am aware that I look at people fairly intently, but I understand it’s important to look away at intervals and not freak them out (unless I have reason to want to freak them out, ahem). I think it’s respectful to look into someone’s eyes but I’ve learned the hard way it can signal that I’m more interested in the person or what’s being said than I actually am, so I’m more careful to align my eye contact with my level of interest.

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28 thoughts on “Look me in the eye

  1. entropy

    I always get disturbed looks from women, and people generally look away from me when I try to look them in the eyes in passing.

    I am always looking for the knowing look of people who suffered in life.

    They don’t seem to exist in this town.

    Also, I like to compliment women with my gaze. I shouldn’t do that anymore 😉

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      I think it makes some people feel too seen, whether they’re anxious about being judged or about intimacy in general. There’s a lot of personal information silently being exchanged. Power is being established sometimes. (I won’t put you on the spot and ask if any of this sounds right, unless you want). –Colette

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  2. A.PROMPTreply

    You certainly cover a wide variety in your posts! I didn’t see this one coming – LOL! One of the big things we’ve tried to teach our son is eye contact. It is important….somehow validating the recipient of your gaze or the interaction between you. But you are correct…..the gaze needs to be aligned with the interest level. I have seen people who maintain a steady eye contact and it’s not flattering or validating, but creepy! A fine line, I guess.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Yeah, no picking a “niche” for me! I decided when I started, I’d write about whatever I wanted (what’ll they do, FIRE me?!)

      Do you literally talk to your son about eye contact or is it more by example? I am delighted when a gradeschool age person can look at me. I find quite a few kids don’t return greetings these days and I always wonder if they were instructed to keep silent or if they are just unpleasant (I’m being diplomatic!).

      Staring crosses lines in all cultures that I’m aware of and it’s worse when there’s a power discrepancy (boss to subordinate, strange male to strange woman, etc).

      Thanks for commenting!

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      1. A.PROMPTreply

        We actually do talk to him about it. Or at least we did. Long story, but if you’ve ever heard of the Barclay Classes, you’ll know what sort of training he’s been through as for as social stuff. He was in those classes for 2 years and during that time, we did alot of talking about social niceties and what people responded to, etc. I will say this in relation to your comments about eye contact from teens….I’ve had many MANY comments about my son’s overly good manners and his eye contact. He actually looks an adult in the eye (and has since he was 12 and started those classes), responds to a greeting from said adult, and in return will ask a question of them like, “How are you?” or something along that line. Actually, our son is probably our best conversation piece with other adults. Little things like that really get noticed!

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        1. writerinsoul Post author

          Wow. Thanks for telling me about this. I didn’t know about these classes (just looked them up; sure could have used something like that myself back in the day). You are smart – when you hear about all these college grads who can’t get work, who end up interning for peanuts and so on, you have to figure something like social skills, especially now, will give your son a significant edge.

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  3. vanbytheriver

    You are the consummate people watcher, Colette.☺ I have a feeling age is a factor. I’ve noticed the reaction or lack thereof when I smile at strangers. The very young and the very old smile back and often speak. Men my age respond. Women my age look at me critically. Teens just look down, you’re so right !
    I was very shy as a child, and was constantly told to make eye contact, shake hands, greet strangers, etc. It was tough. My father would take me on his bill-paying/banking errand trips and force me to make a payment/deal with cashiers, etc. It was a deliberate exercise that I disliked at the time…I understood later how it helped me. I think the real change came for me when I got away from home, and I could relate to folks who did not know that I had been that shy member of a very aggressive birth family.
    Provocative and interesting post. As always..Enjoy the way your mind works !! Van ❤️

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Thank you so much Van!! Quite right, I am watching! (Other watchers notice; all the oblivious people do not.) I was like you, sensitive/shy when I was very little, but I was around older people so often – and so many -that I think that got me used to interacting. Once I was a teen, I was pretty extroverted. I don’t know where I learns to shake hands – not my family – but I picked that up too. I still do it but notice it’s out of vogue, at least in social settings. It confuses people! (A woman was eyeing me the other day – critically – so I said “hi” and she looked away.)

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      1. vanbytheriver

        The handshaking decline in social settings might have something to do with germs?? not sure, but it is still alive and well in the business world; women with a weak handshake send the wrong signal sometimes. When I say Good Morning, especially to women, and get snubbed, I always say “maybe not” loud enough for them to hear. My bad. ☺

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        1. writerinsoul Post author

          Oh God, Van, I say a low-volume “maybe not” too, but for a number of situations, not just “good morning.” I also say quietly: “okaaaay” and “she seems nice.” I knew people were still shaking hands right & left in business. The wimpy fish handshake sends a message pretty much anywhere. I sure don’t think I’m a bone crusher, but a lot of people, women & men give me that lame handshake. Unless it’s a child or elderly person, I immediately begin to attribute uh, characteristics to them.

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          1. vanbytheriver

            Oh, how I love “she seems nice”..have to remember that one! I worked in HR for a while and met some limp handshakes. To me, it signaled a lack of confidence, or maybe the insecurity that comes with deceit. It mattered.

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  4. Intuition Calling!

    I am all about the eye contact as well. It’s my form of internal greeting with another person. Sometimes I do say hello and often times not. And these with strangers no less. And I usually have a smile to accompany this!

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  5. battlewagon13

    When we were dating my wife would look squarely at my Adam’s apple and not directly in the eyes. It was very off-putting. She would never admit that she was doing it either, so it just may have been a long-cultured habit. NOW she won’t look me in the eyes because she’s just sick of me. I understand that better.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      I’d be put off too – I find eye contact such a big part of bonding/connecting or just plain “getting” each other. Poor Tim. At least she’s still talking to you. If only to tell you where to find stuff.

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  6. Mithai Mumblezz

    This is a wonderfully written article. Completely agree with you in every point!! I guess its being polite when you make eye contact with someone. People really need to be less self aware and just happily express themselves without getting all tied up.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Thanks for commenting! People can be so fearful of one another. I know when I’m rebuffed it stings but I get over it fast; I remind myself more people are receptive to good will than not. I reach out first many times – eye contact, a greeting, a friendly comment – because I know I can.

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      1. Mithai Mumblezz

        You are welcome. This is a wonderful thing you said ‘ because I know I can’. This is a blessing. Not many people can actually. And I really feel bad for them. Every one should be ‘free’ to enjoy life in a very happy and light manner 🙂
        Loving your blogs,
        Lots of love and best wishes ❤ ❤

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