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Of all awkward moments in my life, maintaining eye contact is certainly in the top three. There, I said it! I used to find eye contact extremely awkward in a conversation. Today, it still can be.

The issue is: Too much eye contact, then people find you forceful, intimidating, or odd. Too little eye contact, then people think you’re uninterested, unconvinced, or doubtful. Getting it ‘just right,’ well…, that’s a challenge because you don’t have much time to get it right. A recent study has shown that it takes just 3.3 seconds for a gaze to go from comfortable to disturbing.

The fact is that we all have different levels of comfort when it comes to looking someone in the eyes. One person’s friendly eye contact is another person’s agonising moment. Not only is it situational depending on one’s personality and cognitive traits, but also a matter of culture and customs.

 

How Awkwardness Started

The story goes back to when I travelled to Iceland, where eye contact started to get awkward for me. As a kid, I was taught that it’s polite to look into the eyes of the person whom I’m having a conversation with. So, I took that lesson with me to Iceland where I stayed for around six months.

After two months or so, someone asked me if it’s normal for me to look someone in the eyes when having a conversation. His question caught me off guard and I answered hesitantly “yes.” Then, he kindly told me that I was intimidating and explained that it’s not common in Iceland to look someone straight in the eyes. He further explained that Icelanders prefer to look in the distance while the “attention” is focussed on the conversation, and from time to time just have a quick gaze in the eyes.

 

“I look past your eyes, so I can comprehend your words.” – Tina J. Richardson

 

Now, it may not seem like a big deal, but what he said did make me conscious about eye contact. Maybe my actions weren’t as polite as I thought. Or maybe not all Icelanders feel this way. Or maybe I gazed for more than 3.3 seconds. Anyways, it got me thinking. I decided to slowly adapt to their way of communication. At a certain point, I noticed I was getting too conscious about my eye contact and actions around it.

 

A Window Into The Soul

The thing is, eye contact increases self-consciousness. It’s like when we look at our own reflection in a mirror and see our true self. Self-consciousness can come in the form of increased focus on how others see us and inward focus, such as our heartbeat, breathing, eye and muscle movement.

According to a recent paper, direct eye contact increases self-referential processing. As explained in the paper, self-referential processing is a mental state where we interpret everything going on around us with an exaggerated focus on ourselves.

I realised I created the spot-light effect for myself, in which I believed I was the centre of attention. Somehow, I came across a sense of personal uncertainty that drove the attention away from my conversation and directed my focus to what others might be thinking about me.

 

Self-Referential Processing Issues

Self-referential processing arises from personal issues, which can work in our favour or against. This depends on whether our authentic self is in alignment with what is being said by others. If it aligns, then it means we are comfortable being who we are with a healthy self-esteem. If not, it can have a counterproductive effect instead. In my case, it wasn’t aligned, and here is a short explanation.

Eye contact opens a door to the person inside us, without our permission. The less authentic we are and the more we worry about being judged, the more uncomfortable this feels. I tried to overcome this by over-compensating myself but that resulted in losing trust. Instead, I should have worked on being comfortable with my authenticity and on building self-esteem.

Also, eye contact backfires if we disagree with or feel threatened by what is being said on a personal level. The door that opens to our authentic self, also accesses our core values and principles. So, at that time, my principle of showing politeness clashed with what’s being said by someone else. In such cases, eye contact can hinder with what we want to achieve from a conversation.

 

Control Perception

As many of us try our best to be more comfortable with our authenticity and on building more self-esteem, it certainly is a big step in the right direction.

However, what’s not helpful is our modern tech-heavy lifestyle. Nowadays, our gaze is often directed to the computer and mobile screens, even when being together with other people. It’s self-evident that this is not beneficial for smooth social interaction. Eye contact has often been fraught with awkwardness. Now, though, that may be truer than ever.

Interacting with friends online grants us greater control over the way they perceive us, and that can be reassuring. But if we hide behind Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Facebook, we lessen the possibility of an encounter that could teach us about one another and ourselves.

 

Take A Closer Look

We know we are more likely to pay attention to someone who seems to be paying attention to us. It is also no surprise that exchanging eye contact with someone makes us feel better about that person. If eyes are the windows to our souls, then eye contact acts as a confidence controller.

The more eye contacts we make, the more we put ourselves out there. So, the more confidence we have in what people will find once they get a closer look at us, the more comfortable we feel with looking them back in the eye.

 

  • How do you experience making eye contact?
  • Did it ever put you in an awkward position?
  • What does making contact means in your culture?

 

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