How important is eye contact socially and in relationships? What are the truths, the myths, and the cultural differences when it comes to looking people in the eye?
A truth according to Wikipedia; eye contact is an event when two people look at each other's eyes at the same time. It's a form of nonverbal communication known as oculesics and has a large influence on social behavior.
A myth; you can't trust someone who won't look you in the eye. Or, if someone's eyes dart to many things in the room while you're talking with them they're "shifty-eyed" or shy.
In many cultures it's considered disrespectful to look someone in the eye, especially if the person is a superior. In some cultures or religions, looking someone of the opposite sex in the eye is forbidden, unless the person is your mate or a close family member.
In our culture, young children who don't look some people in the eye may be considered shy. We've known very intelligent children tagged as shy by adults who saw them only occasionally and didn't take time to give the children quality attention.
The youngsters grew up to be extremely successful and effective communicators with excellent eye contact. Perhaps, in their early years they merely had no time for adults who visited infrequently, tousled their hair, and said stupid things to them.
According to Wikipedia, a Canadian study with 3- to 6- month-old infants found that smiling in the infants decreased when adult eye contact was removed. A British study found that direct gaze facilitated face recognition by infants. Other research confirmed the belief that the direct gaze of adults influences the direct gaze of infants.
Sadly, some adults avoid eye contact because of early childhood wounding. Researchers who study relationships find there is a big difference between people who make friends easily and those who don't. Generally, people in successful relationships tend to make frequent eye contact when conversing.
Eye aversion can be a positive thing when a cognitive task is at hand. Apparently, looking someone in the eye requires mental processing that could be distracting when trying to respond to questions on a test or concentrating on an activity.
Watching strangers intently might be regarded as rude, intrusive, or threatening. However, we often look for clues in the eyes of people with whom we communicate. We want to know if we're accepted. People tend to make less eye contact with individuals they dislike.
Another clue we look for is whether or not someone's paying attention to what we're saying. Conversely, our frequent eye contact with them conveys that we're listening and we care about them or about what they're saying.
Maintaining constant eye contact is virtually impossible, arouses strong emotion, and can be stressful. Eye contact between two people rarely lasts longer than three seconds before one or both participants has a strong urge to look away.
When it comes to eye contact with animals - watch out. Eye aversion is strongly recommended. Direct eye contact in most species is seen as aggressive and threatening.
While visiting a zoo years ago, one of our children conducted an independent experiment without our approval. He made prolonged eye contact with a rather large primate. Strong bars kept the gorilla from attacking him. However, the agitated ape picked up some disgusting matter and flung it directly into our son's face.
A truth; although gorillas and people are both primates, it's generally safer to limit our eye contact to Homo sapiens.
Lyn and Bill live in Highlands Ridge. Visit their Web sites www.boomersandbeyondthecolum.com and www.thecaregiverscaregiver.com
©2007 Journey Publications