The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Eyes Contact

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])

Sign1. 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 brainLevator 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).

Literature1. "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 [1850]) 2. ". . . the attentive eyes whose glance stabbed." (Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim [1899]) 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 [1899])

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., faceshands, 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 II1. "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).

E-Commentary I: "As you said, it is very difficult to spot the dilation of the pupils, especially if the person has dark eyes. But my experience with hypnosis has helped me to identify some cues related to this phenomenon. When I hypnotize a person, I stay near his or her face, and can observe his or her pupils--and at the same time I note that other changes occur in the expression of gaze as well. In other words, I observe that when a person dilates the pupils, the gaze also appears to stare, empty and absent. So, when I see these expressions in the gaze of a person, even if he or she is far away, I know the pupils are dilated." --Marco Pacori (2/23/00 4:26:01 AM Pacific Standard Time)

E-Commentary II: "I found your page to be quite informative on the subject of eye contact, which is my chosen topic for my sociology class. I chose eye contact because as I walk through the halls at school, as well as when I enter a classroom where there are students sitting, I find that a majority of them, of all ages, shapes, and sizes, won't make eye contact with me. I have also observed this behavior in others who walk in after me. Since I believe eye contact to be the first, and therefore most important form of communication, I wonder why people avoid it so. Thus, my choosing eye contact for my paper." --P.B., Ivy State Technical College, Terre Haute, IN (9/13/99 11:37:24 AM Pacific Daylight Time)

E-Commentary III: "I stumbled on your web site as I was looking for the possible meaning to a nonverbal situation I encountered. I was speaking to a woman (personal, not work related) about a situation where someone we both know very sneakily managed to slough a task onto me that she had volunteered to do. The entire time I was speaking to this woman--easily 2-3 minutes--her eyes were totally closed! It was the most bizarre thing I've ever seen. Her face never left looking directly at me but her eyes were completely closed--she never opened them for so much as a second. I'm thinking that this was a defensive cue, but to have them closed for so long struck me as very odd. I noticed it immediately and couldn't take my eyes off her, waiting to see how long they would stay shut. I don't think I heard a word she was saying because of this eye behavior." --Megan (4/10/01 7:30:01 AM Pacific Daylight Time)

E-Commentary IV: "I have a question about eye contact. I've started a new job and my first day (yesterday) coincides with another member of our technical team (a woman) who also started yesterday. Whenever the three of us are standing together, my boss looks more directly at her than at me. Is this a sign of his disapproval and possible dislike of me, and his favoritism of her? I hate to start a new job on such a negative note, but I feel really rejected when he does this. Could you lend some thoughts as to whether this is disapproval or perhaps he just feels more comfortable with her? I'm not sure." --Adena (4/10/01 9:51:06 PM Pacific Daylight Time)

E-Commentary V: "Thanks so much for your response! He and I had a one-on-one conversation in his office my first day. This was such an important day for me. I was eager to get off on a good note. My colleague and I started the same day and he met with her first. He spent a lot of time with her and then when he met with me, he was so strange. He kept looking down and away from me. Then, he kept shuffling papers around and would stand up and walk over to his desk. After this, he was in a hurry to finish our meeting and kind of non-verbally tossed me out of the office. I guess I'm feeling like the yucky step-child in this boss/employee relationship when compared to my colleague. After this meeting, the next day, is when he approached both of us and started a conversation but looked at her the entire time. How strange!" --Adena (4/12/01 10:10:51 PM Pacific Daylight Time)

Neuro-notes. Feelings of dominancesubmission, liking, and disliking pass from the limbic system and basal ganglia to the midbrain's oculomotor (cranial III), trochlear (IV), andabducens (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.

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.)