Help Me Look You In The Eyes
November 4, 2008 10:01 AM   Subscribe

My mom has trouble looking people in the eye for some reason and I'm just now realizing that I picked up the same habit from her. I'm in my late 20s. I'm not a painfully shy person nor am I socially inept, I just have trouble looking people in the eye. If feel uncomfortable doing so and people have started to comment on it. What can I do to break myself of the habit and start looking people in the eye.
posted by Waitwhat to Human Relations (23 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Is it everyone or just people you dislike?
posted by jon_kill at 10:16 AM on November 4, 2008

I realized some years back I NEVER look at people's eyes, it's usually their mouth.

What are you looking at naturally, if not their eyes?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:16 AM on November 4, 2008

Get (or borrow) a cat. Practice staredown.
posted by adipocere at 10:23 AM on November 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

One trick to try is to set yourself a goal of noting what each persons eye colour is. Might just give you the mental kick to not feel so awkward about it.
posted by Mattat at 10:25 AM on November 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: It's people I both like and dislike. Or I will look them in the eyes but not be sure how long I should look into their eyes. I tend to look past them or at the floor. Anywhere but their eyes.
posted by Waitwhat at 10:27 AM on November 4, 2008

I developed the same "issue" after living in Japan for ten years, where you often do not look directly at whoever you are addressing.

Look at the space between someone's eyes - it's more comfortable.

However, most people don't fixate or stare at that space when speaking with someone. Instead, people often shift their gaze all over their conversation partner's face. So if you stare at one spot, it will seem weird.

I sometimes practiced on newsreaders on television, as they tend to stare out, just like a conversation partner would.

If the tension becomes unbearable, you can take your gaze off your conversation partner's face by coughing, or by thinking (looking up to the right means you're thinking of good ideas). If you're explaining a concept, learn to use your hands. You can then stare at your hands (briefly) as you explain something.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:29 AM on November 4, 2008

Pick just one eye and look at it. I always go for the person's right. I don't know how I picked that up, but I did, and it works for me.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:39 AM on November 4, 2008


Or take a beginning acting or improv class. There are usually exercises done which involve just standing in front of someone and looking into their eyes. After a few such sessions, looking people into the eye as you're talking to them starts to feel natural and you start doing it more.
posted by Arthur Dent at 10:44 AM on November 4, 2008 [2 favorites]

Huh, interesting, I have the same problem, though I look at people's mouths, like stupidsexyFlanders. I think the person talking tends to look around, while the listener is "supposed" to focus on the talker. Can you practice looking into their eyes when they are talking (and probably looking elsewhere) as a start? Or does this bother you as well?

KokuRyu's comment made me realize that though looking into the eyes of a real-life person who is looking directly at me is uncomfortable, looking at a newsreader doesn't bother me at all. Maybe because I "know" they aren't really looking at me? I can tell I am going to chew on this one for a while...

Interesting question. Is this maybe an alpha thing? I'm definitely not an alpha most of the time (middle o' the pack dominance-wise). Are you?
posted by Punctual at 10:51 AM on November 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I used to have this problem. I solved it by rethinking the way I look at people. I never look them directly in the eye, but try to look at them as if they are a photo or portrait. You don't necessarily look at a portrait of someone in the eye, but you look at their face, neck and shoulders as a whole picture. So that's what I try to see - the whole picture. Not just their eyes, not just their mouth. It seems much more natural and less intense. Sometimes if I have trouble doing this, I take a few steps back and try again. This also helped when I had trouble talking with someone who had a large mole on their nose that I could not stop looking at. It was a horrible habit and something I had to break.
posted by bristolcat at 11:04 AM on November 4, 2008

For me it's all about the self talk. I am not so good with making eye-contact unless I remember. So I will actually say things like "Good eye contact. Remember good eye contact." to myself when I'm in meetings to make sure I'm not unintentionally falling into old patterns.

It has the added bonus of making me laugh - which also lessens any surrounding stress.
posted by machine at 11:41 AM on November 4, 2008

No practical advice, but I can maybe reassure you about what friends of yours may be thinking --

A friend of mine sometimes has this same trouble. I mentioned it to him a few months after we'd met and he says that yeah, sometimes he gets a little uneasy with eye contact if he doesn't know someone that well - and once I knew that I just shrugged and took it in stride. I've noticed since that he WILL look me in the eye if he's especially passionate about what he's talking about (and, plus, we've also known each other six years now). But he does still sometimes end up looking at your cheek or your ear or your shoulder while he's talking to you. I just take it as part of his quirks, and I have faith most people who know you well probably do the same.

(The only moment that I was a little put off by my friend was the night we met -- but that was only because we met on a blind date, and I spent a good half hour in conversation with him wondering why he was being so blatant about trying to stare at my boobs.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:08 PM on November 4, 2008

I have the same problem, only it stems from social awkwardness. It tends to happen with people I like, and people with big eyes. Maybe get a friend and practice looking at him/her in the eye while talking. Said friend can then indicate when you're looking and not looking - a gesture, a remark, whatever. Doesn't even have to be human or adult (cat, baby, puppy, etc.)

I never tried this, so take it with a grain of salt.
posted by curagea at 12:50 PM on November 4, 2008

I do this too. I have started to get better at it but I still prefer not to look at the people I'm talking to.

I seem to remember reading about a sociologist and "body language" expert who went to a sci-fi convention and was floored to realize that everyone's eye contact at the convention was simply "broken" by accepted standards. Hardly anyone made eye contact when talking.

So, my guess is that you're simply a nerd, i.e., are introverted or have a touch of Asperger's like the rest of us.
posted by kindall at 1:03 PM on November 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

A slight variation on some of the above suggestions - long ago, someone have me the advice to look right below someone's eyes, which looks to them like you're making eye contact and might allow you a little more comfort.
posted by dreamphone at 2:13 PM on November 4, 2008

Wow, I am really amazed by the number of evasion tactics offered here. I agree that if you simply cannot bring yourself to make eye contact, then at least look at their face (eyebrows or cheekbones or whatever). Personally, I prefer a brief moment or two of direct eye contact, repeated occasionally throughout the conversation. Please don't stare constantly.
I remember a lesson from my mother, during my painfully shy pre-teen phase. At a restaurant she told me I was being very rude to our server by not making eye contact. She challenged me to practice, and I got a lot better at it. It really wasn't until I was in high school and had my little self confidence epiphany that I was able to regularly extend that beyond servers or retail employees.
I really can't emphasize enough, practice. It does get easier.
posted by purpletangerine at 3:54 PM on November 4, 2008

Ah, you don't actually have to look at their eyes, nor do you have to stare at any one point fixatedly.

Flick your attention between left eyebrow, right eyebrow, and mouth. And some center-of-forehead-between-eyes for good measure.
So left eyebrow 1-2, right eybrow 1-2, mouth 1, right 1-2, mouth 1... etc.

Flicking between whichever point seems most animated actually makes you seem like a better listener. If hands move, briefly switch to those for a second or two - it's natural.

If you feel nervous, just switch to the mouth, or something you feel more neutral about.
posted by Elysum at 4:07 PM on November 4, 2008

To break the habit, it really is about being conscious of your behaviour and deliberately chainging it, i.e. practice - it's about finding the balance between staring at someone (which can be disconcerting) and not looking at them at all (which can be taken as not listening, not being interested, or if you naturally lower your gaze, particularly when talking to a woman, can be taken in a whole other - not good - way...).

So vary your gaze - deliberately take time to look over their shoulder, look down at your notes / your drink etc. If someone says something that you need to think about before responding to, turning away and staring into space is a natural reaction, after which you can turn back, make eye contact again, and respond. Bizarrely, responding to something gives you the opportunity to temporarily avert your gaze, which makes eye contact more possible, and looks thoughtful. It will become more natural with practice.

Watch other people - how do they deal with this? Some people have the gift of engaging with people naturally, some people have to learn it - there's nothing wrong with that.

(And if you find that you naturally lower your gaze and want to avoid the implications of that, try tilting your head back slightly when you talk to someone. Looks a bit odd, but odd is better than coming across as a perv...)
posted by finding.perdita at 4:22 PM on November 4, 2008

p'tang has a good point. Constant eye contact is disturbing and threatening to many people.
posted by yclipse at 4:27 PM on November 4, 2008

Trouble with eyes is that the damn things are crawling with distracting micro-expressions. Slightly defocusing will render you insensitive to those and make the eyes much less scary things to look at. And what Elysum said.
posted by flabdablet at 4:43 PM on November 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I really have a hard time with this when my depression is getting the best of me, I guess it goes hand in hand with the social anxiety that likes to flair up at that time too. I have to consciously remind myself to make eye contact at least a few times during the conversation....I still can't always make constant eye through an entire conversation.
posted by meeshell at 5:45 PM on November 4, 2008

I have the same problem and friends have pointed out to me that I even close my eyes a lot when I'm speaking, resulting in weirdly prolonged blinks. What I've discovered is that it's great if you can improve with practice (i.e. all the suggestions here: consciously prolong it, switch your gaze from eye to eye or eye to mouth, etc.), but in the long run nobody will dislike you or reject you due to poor eye contact. In fact, I think many people in my life actually respond more positively to me because of it and feel more comfortable around me, as it lends conversations a very open, non-threatening feel. Instead of getting a "boy, you're a socially awkward nerd" vibe, I get a "boy, you're really listening to me and giving me thoughtful responses" vibe.
posted by RingerChopChop at 8:28 AM on November 5, 2008

My partner is like this because he's an introvert from an introverted family from a reserved culture.

I suggest participating in activities where you can't look at people's eyes, like taking a walk together, watching TV, or eating at the bar instead of at a table.

I would also perhaps ask a good friend for guidance in this area.
posted by sondrialiac at 1:22 PM on November 5, 2008

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