The Power of Eye Contact

The Power of Eye Contact

By Maggie Fitzpatrick

Why do so many people seem nervous about eye contact? Every day I pass my neighbor from down the hall, and he turns his head away. I give the barista six bucks for a stinkin' cup of coffee, and she won't even give me a glance as she hands me my drink. I'm crammed in a subway car with some 800 other people, and every single one of them is doing their best to not look at each other. What is it about looking someone in the eye that can be so daunting?

Maybe it's because our eyes let more slip than the rest of the body. Most of the time, it's easy enough to fake a smile and act cheery, even if something's bothering you. I've learned by now, though, that the truth still comes out in your eyes – whether you want it to or not. After a bad breakup, you might go on and on about how glad you are to finally be rid of the jerk, but your eyes let on that you miss him (and that I should swing by with an unseemly amount of ice cream). Avoiding a gaze can be a way of avoiding the truth.

Maybe it's because locking eyes is just a little too intimate. Eye contact can bridge the physical distance between people. For that one instant that we lock eyes across a room, I get a glimpse of your personality, your mood, the person you are inside, and you can learn the same things about me. That brief connection can be a little unnerving. But does that really make it a bad thing?

Eye contact can definitely take some getting used to, but it's around for a reason. There's no better way to get your point across without ever having to say a word. Of course, that doesn't mean everyone uses it like they should. For every reassuring glance to a friend in need, there's a creepy leer from a guy at the club. However we use it, though, you can't deny the role eye contact plays in everyday communication.

Indeed, pretty much from the day we're born, eye contact helps establish connections. Babies make eye contact while nursing, helping form that first bond between mother and child. I'm not sure if I've seen eye-to-eye with my mother on anything since, but I'm still glad we made that initial connection.

Not long after, as infants, we learn to respond most positively to people who give us eye contact. Studies have shown that infants will even coo and fuss to try and get people to look them in the eyes. Years later, I find myself having to do the same thing with some of my, ahem, less gentlemanly dates.

As we grow a little older, we use eye contact to help first develop the ability to recognize and identify emotions in other people. Almost instinctively, it seems, we know that eye contact is a key tool for focusing attention and empathy.

These early lessons are important, as eye contact becomes absolutely vital later on, affecting day-to-day interactions in pretty much every part of our lives.

At work, for instance, eye contact can really help you establish a good rapport with your peers, while still commanding respect and attention.

During interviews, a lack of eye contact can make you seem untrustworthy or weak-willed. If you can't even look your interviewer in the eye, they might get the wrong idea – that you're lying on your resume, for instance. Or that you'll be that weird, shifty-eyed employee who's always stealing pens and hiding out in the bathroom. And I know, being on the spot like that can be scary, but your interviewer knows it too, and looking them square in the eye shows that you're self-assured, that you can handle the pressure. And that might just put you ahead of the pack.

In meetings, eye contact is important for creating a good back-and-forth. A steady gaze, interrupted by the occasional nod, shows that you're paying attention to whoever's speaking. Of course, you could do the same thing even if you weren't paying attention… not that I'd ever recommend that. Obviously they have some very stimulating points to make about supply-side fiscal policy and its effects on blah blah blah blah…

If you ever feel the need to interrupt the monotony with a point of your own – and you don't want to be the jackass who just starts talking over everyone – a little eye contact can be a great way to politely interject. A quick look at the speaker, with your eyebrows slightly raised, indicates your interest in speaking; a glance back from them lets you know you're welcome to pipe in. Of course, some co-workers are so fascinated by the sound of their own voice that no amount of meaningful looks are ever going to get them to clam up – in which case I recommend beaning them on the head with your coffee mug. Just kidding. Your own results may vary.

Occasionally, discussions can escalate into arguments and debates, and a good, firm stare can help you appear assertive and self-assured as you make your points. Don't overdo it, though, or you'll come off like a bully. Everyone will stop inviting you to lunch if they think there's going to be some big stare-down just to choose between Chinese and Mexican.

When speaking in front of a large group, making eye contact with each member of your audience can help assure that they're paying attention to you. If it helps, instead of thinking of it as the dreaded "public speaking," pretend that you're having a short conversation with each individual member of the audience. This makes your listeners feel more involved; studies have even shown that periodic eye contact can encourage them to more actively contribute questions, comments and suggestions.

(Note: It is not recommended that you combine this "short conversations" method with that whole "picture the audience in their underwear" trick, as it could make for some pretty awkward conversations.)

On the dating scene, of course, the rules are slightly different. Eye contact remains just as important, but how you use it changes. Studies have shown that direct eye contact and a smile can be even more important to attraction than physical attributes. Of course, it probably won't help if you're Medusa in a too-tight dress and light-up heels, but still! Use it to your advantage!

I'm sure that most of you have long learned that eye contact can be a simple way to reel a guy in, so I'm not going to go through the whole dance - "look at him, look away real quick, look back again," etc. Just a few tips to keep in mind:

Obviously, no matter how cute he is, you don't want to flat out stare at the guy; that's less "sexy," more "terrifying." Your goal is to play it coy here. Glance at him from across the room and "accidentally" let him catch you looking just a little too long. Don't worry if you blush; those sorts of clues only tell him you're interested.

Unfortunately, some guys are clueless, or just plain shy, so be careful about your timing. If he keeps missing your glances, he may think you're disinterested and back off. And, even if you have been regularly trading glances, he might still hold off on coming up to you, in which case you can hold your gaze a little longer and give him a slightly wider smile to let him know, "It's OK. I don't bite."

Once you're in conversation, the general rules for good eye contact apply. Smile and look him in the eyes as you introduce yourself. When listening to him, smile and raise your eyebrows in the right places, assuring him that you're interested in what he's saying. Of course, if he's telling a story about a horrible car accident, smiling might not be the best reaction, so use your best judgment. Eye contact obviously can't fix it if the guy's boring or a jerk, but it can definitely help you establish that first connection.

Obviously, eye contact can be a pretty powerful phenomenon, but that doesn't mean we have to be afraid of it. Although some people use their glances to be sleazy or aggressive, the rest of us can start showing off the positive side of eye contact. So, start throwing friendly looks to neighbors, store cashiers, coworkers or your fellow passersby. The best part of eye contact might be its effect on others.

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