Eye Contact Meaning
The study of eye contact meaning is known as oculesics. We often subconsciously gather a lot of emotional information about other people from looking at their eyes.
In most of the Western world, about two seconds of direct eye contact are considered polite and comfortable – anything longer than that can be perceived as staring, which subconsciously often gets registered as a threat. However, there are many exceptions to this rule, depending upon the relationship of the two people involved and the situation.
For example, when a man and a woman flirt with each other, extended eye contact has a completely different meaning than when two business people are involved in a negotatiation.
One of the most obvious ways to interpret the meaning of eye contact is by looking at blinking patterns and speed. Everybody has an individual blink rate, but in different situations this blink rate tends to change. Generally, the more excited we are the faster we blink and the more relaxed we are, the more our blinking slows down.
A slow kind of blinking, that looks almost like slow motion can often signal that a person is bored. If for example during the course of a discussion you are talking about something and you can see that a person is blinking slowly, it might be a good time to either talk about something else, do something unexpected to get the persons interessant and attention back or to simply ask a question from that person. (It is better to ask an open question than a closed question. Closed questions are questions that can only be answered with either yes or no, while open questions require a more elaborate answer).
In hypnotherapy, altered blink speeds often are used to identify when a hypnotic subject enters an altered state of consciousness.
Eye Accessing Cues
Richard Bandler, the co-founder of NLP (neurolingustic programming) found many years ago that there is a direct correlation between our eye movements and the kind of information that we internally process. Generally, when we look up we process visual information, when we look to the left or right, we process auditory information and when we look down we either process kinestethic information (feelings) or internal self-talk.
When we look to the upper right, we imagine something, whereas when we look to the upper left we recall something that we have seen.
As with body language in general, when it comes to eye contact there are many cultural differences. East-Asian countries for example usually avoid direct eye contact. In some countries, the privilege of looking people directly straight in the eye is traditionally reserved to people of higher status when they communicate to people of lower status.
Even though these social norms have now changed and non-verbal communication is becoming increasingly global, they still are so deeply embedded into people’s minds that it is important to know about them. For example, Westerners working in Asian countries are often perceived as being rude and disrespectful because they look superiors straight in the eyes. On the other hand, Asian people working in Western countries are often perceived as “shifty-eyed” or submissive, because they have been socially conditioned to avoid eye contact with superiors. It can also cause a sense of distrust in Western people if a person is not looking them into their eyes.
In the Middle East for example more intense eye contact is quiet common, whereas it is often considered inappropriate when a man and a woman look each other in the eye.
Eye Contact Is Hard Work
Because we process so much emotional information when we look at another person’s eyes, it can in fact take away from our mental processing power. There was an interesting experiment where researchers asked children questions. One group was told not to look at the teacher when answering, the other group was told to look at the teacher when answering. Interestingly, the group that was told not to look at the teacher gave better answers.
It basically requires children to “multitask” when they look a person in the eye and try to come up with an answer. The same is probably true for adults too.