Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine. . . . --Ben Jonson, To Celia
As soon as I walked into the room, that man looked at me, immediately looked away and never met my eyes during the interview. --Susan House of Chicago, at a job interview in California ("I'm fat," House said [Bennett 2001:D3])
Sign. 1. A visual connection made as one person gazes into the eyes of another. 2. A highly emotional link established as two people simultaneously observe each other's eyes.
Usage: Gazing at another's eyes arouses strong emotions. Thus, eye contact rarely lasts longer than
three seconds before one or both viewers experience a powerful urge to glance
away. Breaking eye contact lowers stress levels (as measured, e.g., by breathing
rate, heart rate, and sweaty palms).
Anatomy. The six muscles that cooperate to move each of our eyeballs are ancient and common to all vertebrates. The muscles' nerves link to unconscious as well as to thinking parts of our brain. Levator palpebrae superioris, the muscle that raises our upper eyelid, arose from superior rectus (one of the six muscles that rotate the eyeball itself). Note that because their connective tissue coats still are fused, we automatically lift our eyelids when we look up.
Cops. What gives police officers away in a roomful of people is their habit of looking too intently and too carefully at others (Joe Navarro, FBI special agent, personal communication, August 2001).
Culture. In Japan, listeners are taught to focus on a speaker's neck in order to avoid eye contact, while in the U.S., listeners are encouraged to gaze into a speaker's eyes (Burgoon et al. 1989:194).
Espionage. "If someone should surprise you, stay calm. Look him right
in the eye--always maintain eye contact. That way you don't look shifty-eyed,
but, more important, all he will notice is your eyes." --CIA operative David
Forden to Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski (Chelminski 1999; see DECEPTION)
Garden party. "After the host and the various guests embraced, they backed off and one or both always looked away. [Anthropologist Adam] Kendon calls this the cut-off and thinks it may be an equilibrium-maintaining device. Every relationship except a very new one has its own customary level of intimacy and if a greeting is more intimate than the relationship generally warrants, some kind of cut-off is needed afterward so that everything can quickly get back to normal" (Davis 1971:46).
How to accept criticism. "Look at the person criticizing you to show you are paying attention (but don't stare or make faces [and do nod your head to show you understand])" (Meisner 1998:106).
Literature. 1. "At last, her shot being all expended, the child stood still and gazed at Hester with that little, laughing image of a fiend peeping out--or, whether it peeped or no, her mother so imagined it--from the unsearchable abyss of her black eyes." (Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter ) 2. ". . . the attentive eyes whose glance stabbed." (Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim ) 3. "He met the eyes of the white man. The glance directed at him was not the fascinated stare of the others. It was an act of intelligent volition." (Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim )
Nursery school. "The commonest response to me on my first visit, and to people making rare visits to the nursery school, is initially to stop and stare with no marked expression at the stranger. I find that if I look back at a staring child or make any approach to it, it is likely to look away or go away. But if I make no response the child stops staring and often then brings some object to me and holds it out towards me at about the level of its waist" (Blurton Jones 1967:353).
Primatology I. As primates we show an extreme alertness to where others are looking. Though we consciously control where our own eyes hover and land, eyes have "minds of their own" as well. We feel compelled to look at objects and body parts which our primate brain finds interesting (e.g., faces, hands, and trees)--or to gaze away from what it finds distasteful. In response to feelings of shyness, submissiveness, and stranger anxiety, an inner primate voice warns us to be careful and to "watch where we look." In crowded elevators, e.g., our eyes cannot roam freely across another's faces (as they can, e.g., freely watch media faces pictured in magazines and shown on TV).
Primatology II. 1. "Thus, one interpretation of avoiding visual contact--which has been described in rhesus, baboons, bonnet macaques, [and] gorillas--is that it is a means of avoiding interactions" (Altmann 1967:332). 2. "Facial expressions observed in threatening animals [wild baboons] consist of 'staring,' sometimes accompanied by a quick jerking of the head down and then up, in the direction of the opponent, flattening of the ears against the head, and a pronounced raising of the eyebrows with a rapid blinking of the pale eyelids" (Hall and DeVore 1972:169).
U.S. politics. "'I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight-forward and trustworthy,' [President George] Bush said of the former KGB agent [Russian leader Vladimir Putin] standing by his side. 'We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul'" (Condon 2001:A1).
RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. We generally begin an utterance by looking away and end it by looking back at the listener. While speaking, we alternate between gazing at and gazing away (Nielsen 1962, Argyle and Dean 1965, Kendon 1967). 2. There is more direct gaze when people like each other and cooperate (Argyle and Dean 1965). 3. People make less eye contact when they dislike each other or disagree (Argyle and Dean 1965). 4. In primates, the unwavering gaze evolved as a sign of dominance and threat (Blurton Jones 1967, Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1975), while gaze avoidance originated as a submissive cue (Altmann 1967). 5. "The [Bushmen] children often used to stare at each other until finally one gave up, by averting the eyes, lowering the head and pouting" (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1975:184). 6. "When the subjects gazed at the interviewer's eyes, the hand self-manipulations of the subjects increased, reflecting the upsetting effects of monitoring the interviewer's face during interaction" (Bod and Komai 1976:1276). 7. Direct gaze (along with forward body and smiling) is a trustworthy sign of good feeling between new acquaintances (Palmer and Simmons 1995:156).
Neuro-notes. Feelings of dominance, submission, liking, and disliking pass from the limbic system and basal ganglia to the midbrain's oculomotor (cranial III), trochlear (IV), and abducens (VI) nerves (see AMPHIBIAN BRAIN). Acting in concert, these nerves lead our eye muscles to pull together in downward or sideward movements, depending on mood. Thus, e.g., submissive and aversive feelings move our eyes subcortically through paleocircuits established long ago in vision centers of the midbrain.
See also EYE-BLINK, CLEM, GAZE-DOWN, LOVE SIGNALS III.YouTube Video: Make eye contact with the person in this video.
1998 - 2012 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)
Top: Cary Grant giving and receiving eye-contact from Rosalind Russell (picture credit: Columbia Pictures, copyright 1940). Bottom: Photo of Gorilla gorilla and Homo sapiens eyes (note the prominent white of the human eye around the iris, which may have evolved to enhance readability of gaze direction; copyright 2004 by DK Publishing, Inc.)