A question for (straight) women about varieties of casual eye contact with semi-strange men
March 31, 2009 5:30 PM   Subscribe

A question, especially for straight women, about varieties of casual eye contact with semi-strange men:

At campus, a large workplace or other site with lots of people you see fairly often, most of whom you don't end up acquainting with, to what extent do subtle (or less subtle) differences in how men make passing eye contact affect your impression of them?

I'm not necessarily even talking about overt flirting here, but rather of being at all approachable in the first place, particularly to women who might understandably be wary of drawing attention from men who they don't know but are going to have to see every day, even if they, upon first hint of a smile, turn out to be awkward creeps (disclaimer: I've at least been one).

I do, occasionally, make such unspoken friendly connections with strange women, and then it's a lot more fun and easy to actually flirt and chat up than it is without, even when there otherwise is obvious mutual physical attraction. However, I have hardly a clue of why this happens at times, and doesn't at others. I want to know a) if it really is a matter of variations in eye contact (what else could it be?) and b) if it is, what exactly are the details that make the difference!

Thanks a bunch, I know you'll make my day :)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
So I'm not a woman but read this article a few days ago and figured it would be interesting to you. First Eye Contact

Apparently, when women look at men there is no correlation in how long they look them in the eye and how attracted they are to them. On the other hand, you can find out a lot about how long the man looks at the woman in the eyes. If the guy looks the woman in the eyes for over 8.2 seconds he's probably smitten.
posted by zephyr_words at 5:40 PM on March 31, 2009

I try to make eye contact with most people. It's just something I do. I don't think I would care/think differently if anyone made eye contact back. What I do notice (and which then colors my impression of these people) is when I go to make eye contact, and then realize they (that would be men in this case) are looking back but it's not anywhere near my eyes.
posted by phunniemee at 6:00 PM on March 31, 2009

You casually smiling (as opposed to lecherously) probably helps.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:16 PM on March 31, 2009

Two things - first, a genuine smile (tiny or huge or anything in between) makes a BIG difference in how I receive/react to this kind of eye contact - it's like my brain fires with an "oh, that's ok then" if it recognizes a real smile, which makes me much more receptive to this kind of interaction. Secondly, it's the weirdest thing, but I've noticed that if I say "hey, how's it going?" in a casual-yet-interested voice, it goes lots further toward generating real chat/conversation/interest in strangers than "hi" or "how are you" or anything else. It was really almost eerie when I started paying attention - everyone from the barista to the waitress to the cute guy in the elevator to the elderly co-workers - they all just seem more open to pleasantries and conversation. I suspect it's rooted in the same thing though - genuine interest and openess begets more of the same.
posted by ersatzkat at 6:19 PM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm a woman and try to make eye contact and smile to almost everybody I see in passing. Especially while walking around on campus. Unless I'm absorbed in thinking about something, I'll almost always nod and smile. For guys that I think are exceptionally cute, I may add a "Hey."

Then again, I'm in the southeastern US and we are notorious for noddin' and smilin' at random strangers.

I have noticed that some guys take the nod and smile to mean far more than it's meant, but honestly unless they follow me to my office or home, it's not a big deal. It sucks, because there is no real good clue of behaviors to know if someone's just being friendly or flirting. I have a hell of a time with it myself, although I tend to lean more towards the friendly side than the flirty.
posted by teleri025 at 6:20 PM on March 31, 2009

I think, besides eye contact, "seeming like a kindred spirit" goes a long way. Big age differences or dress style differences or whatever social baggagey differences you can dream up, do have the effect of making people seem less approachable, more foreign. So, I'm not recommending you do anything to become Universal Guy, just filling in that blank of "what else could it be?"

Also, I don't think this issue of "eye contact" is as all simple. People are more or less introverted, and more or less willing to interact due to any number of factors and pressures. Only one of these is creepy ogling or predatory wanting.

So, let's say there's four elements to a look:
- Where
- How
- What Else (appears)
- What Else (done).

Many, many different impressions can be created by looks as these elements vary. So, going with a matrix like:

- Eyes
- Casually and Confidently
- Not looking like someone whose social approchability is hard to believe, in context (by being a nudist, neanderthal, or the Dean, say)
- Eventually Saying "Hi, I don't believe we've been introduced." or "Hot enough for ya" or something

will be the likeliest way to come off as an easily approachable guy. Disclaimer: I'm a rather extroverted woman, so rarely do guys get the chance to approach me, I'm already on the approach.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 6:45 PM on March 31, 2009

A genuine smile with an air of "just being friendly" make the passing eye contact and the verbal communication a pleasant experience for me. I generally try to avoid eye contact and "good mornings" at all costs when walking around in public, because if I didn't, I couldn't make it a block without getting hit on...I know this from experience. But there are a few rare instances when I can just tell someone just wants to be friendly and totally brightens up my day with a "how's it going today?" or a "good morning!" And if it just so happened that I found the person attractive and I was single, I'd definitely be open to further communication with him.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:49 PM on March 31, 2009

eye contact + smile + keep moving (if I don't know you) is what seems the most normal and/or pleasant. To me if I make eye contact with someone (which I usually do) and smile (ditto) it's a social "hey how's it going" brief greeting, not an invitation for longer conversation, especially if we're both moving in different directions. If I see someone slow up in that "oh hey she smiled at me I'll use this as an excuse to start a conversation..." way, I'll usually make it clear that I'm intending to keep moving.

So, if I am moving, smiling and saying hi do not mean "approachable" except in a general "oh hey I know you from around work" way. As in, if we were someplace at work later you could say "hey I'm aaron from your department" or something and I wouldn't be like "woah, why are you talking to me?!"

Eye contact + quick look at boobs = not that cool
Eye contact turning into intense stare/watch me go by = not that cool either
Eye contact + "hey how's it going" and keep moving = pretty okay

So I think to me it's really a case of reading cues effectively. This may be hard for you or maybe you're not lookign for them. The big deal is if I'm not continuing the conversation or connection, then you don't either. If I'm more "hey tell me more about you?" then it's a good thing. I think it's hard for people who aren't great at reading peope to figure out where that point is, but for me, it's not about eye contact and a lot more about "are we having a mutual interaction or are you foisting yourself on me (or vice versa)?" situation

Sorry for all the quotation marks.
posted by jessamyn at 6:50 PM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

even when there otherwise is obvious mutual physical attraction

I'm mystified as to how anyone could tell that without eye contact, to be honest.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:05 PM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

If the guy looks the woman in the eyes for over 8.2 seconds he's probably smitten.

8.2 seconds?? Smitten? Good Lord, he's probably lobotomized. I can't imagine ever doing that in life, outside of an officially sanctioned staring contest.

Just anecodotally, I'm a 33 year old man and I still am pretty clueless what eye contact with women means in the absence of other cues. I tend to look away within a second no matter what, because I worry I'm staring and I'm going to make her uncomfortable.

I guess that's just my way of saying, everyone is different. Actually, most of the time when I did realize a women liked me, it was because she kind of shyly looked away when i looked at her. That says a lot more then a staredown (at least with the kind of women I tend to meet).
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:44 PM on March 31, 2009 [7 favorites]

At 8.2 seconds I assume he's attempting to not stare at her chest. Smitten with something, at least.
posted by pwnguin at 7:50 PM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

definitely keep it casual, but eye contact is important - confidence is attractive, period. however, a lot of it has to do with the woman - if she's already written you off in her book, then you'll always have a hard time...if she already finds you attractive, you can make eye contact and smile for like five seconds and it still won't hurt you.

a relaxed smile is good, it signals your own happiness AND that you may be interested in her. women love to feel special.
posted by bengalibelle at 8:01 PM on March 31, 2009

i say five seconds because five seconds is actually a long time, in passing...
posted by bengalibelle at 8:02 PM on March 31, 2009

There's being at ease, and then there's seeming eager. If you're anything but relaxed, odds are you're coming off as eager. And that can be intimidating, though YMMV. It's in the eyebrows , in the shoulders, general posture (leaning forward = eager).

There's this guy I work with who only started a few months ago, and for the first while I was rather unsettled by him - every time we cross paths he has this million watt smile beaming on his face, he waves and he says "hi, how are you?" I really didn't know what to make of it for the first while - initially it seemed like the enthusiasm of a new recruit, then it felt creepy and aggressive, then eventually yeah, that's his personality, he's just super friendly. Well now I'm quite used to it and he even brightens my day a little. But if I didn't actually work with him and have ample opportunity to get to know him, I'd have stayed at creeped out, I'm pretty sure.

As for actual attraction, the lingering awestruck look (8.2 seconds!) is amusing - it's the same expression as a five year old boy entranced by a puppy or a toy in the store window (yes, sometimes with an open mouth). From a stranger or someone I barely know, a little can be cute but as the intensity goes up, so does my tendency to disregard him or even be creeped out. Again, any sign of tension and it immediately makes us girls put up our guard.

geez, now I'm totally going to be counting seconds in my head from now on.

posted by lizbunny at 8:29 PM on March 31, 2009

I'm a native New Yorker; I generally avoid eye contact with strangers like the plague, and I certainly don't smile or (die) say "hi."

However. I'm single and looking around me and noticing men. I think the biggest factor in whether a guy's looking at me is appreciated is whether it's creepy. And whether it's creepy depends on whether I think he's expecting a reaction. If a guy is looking at me really "hard" (best word for it), almost willing me to make eye contact and notice that he's looking at me, that is BAD. (Pretty much doing anything to a woman with an expectation of getting a certain reaction back is a bad plan.) And then if he does, by accident on my part, catch my eye, that split-second of eye contact is like I'm "asking for it," and he'll leer or "hey baby" me, etc. Now, I don't expect every guy looking at me to do this. But if I get the hard stare, I'll try my damndest to avoid eye contact with this guy and will basically shut myself off.

But if I just notice a guy looking at me, and it seems like he'd rather I didn't notice he were looking, then I have more room to evaluate him and see whether I might be interested. Even a "stare" can be accidental, if, when he realizes I caught him, he looks away. Then he can wait a little, look back again, and if we catch each other's eyes again, then he can smile slightly, and maybe I'll smile slightly back.

That's pretty much as far as it could really go on the street, though. If this were on my cold, small, New England college campus, if this mutual smiling and eye contact happened a few times, then it would be okay for him to start a conversation.

I know I sound Victorian, but I just wanted to give my own personal input.
posted by thebazilist at 8:39 PM on March 31, 2009

Haha at the 8.2 second comments. Just thought the article was sort of appropriate for the question, albeit the small sample size it still seemed interesting to me.
posted by zephyr_words at 8:57 PM on March 31, 2009

jessamyn: "Eye contact turning into intense stare/watch me go by = not that cool"

Agreed. This type of look is the worst kind of look. (Where did this "technique" come from? Has it ever achieved success? Yeeesh.)

If you have the confidence to pull off the not-too-lecherous "heyyy, how's it going?" as a womyn is walking by, that can be pretty flattering and can open the door to more conversation.

Having said that, I think your best bet is to make regular eye contact/a half-smile/a cute quip with someone in line, or someone at the grocery store, or the book store, or the gym, or wherever. In those kind of situations, eye contact is more likely to turn into something more; not necessarily because of the what type/length of eye contact exists but because the circumstances lend themselves better to launching a meaningful interaction.

This is a really interesting question.
posted by cranberrymonger at 9:21 PM on March 31, 2009

I am a native New Yorker. I look people in the eye, and I smile, and sometimes say hi or make small talk with strangers (the rate increases if you are accompanied by a child or a dog).

It really depends on how people respond. I like directness and approachability. I'm a pretty open, heart on my sleeve type of person, so I come off pretty friendly. I get asked for help and for directions a lot. Also old ladies ask me to cross the street with them. I am also sometimes mistaken for a high school student, so looking young probably fits in with the rest.

If you seem warm, return my smile/friendly demeanor, and don't seem like you're using cheesy lines on me but instead are just making genuine friendly small talk or nodding and smiling without expectation, then I pick up on that and it's nice. It's fun.

What cranberrymonger said about chatting in shared circumstances works. I was just making small talk with the guy behind me in the grocery line tonight. Not an unusual occurrence. In these sorts of circumstances, I've read that people connect more often when discussing their dislikes about the situation than likes. This may have been in an article that was New York City specific.

I've found it to be true a lot of the time. The guy behind me bumped me when someone passed and I commented on how crowded the store was, and it went from there.

But good advice is to look, but don't stare. It's not necessarily so much eye contact as your demeanor, your body language, how you're dressed, and the situation you are currently in --essentially, the whole package. All of that will determine how I respond to you.
posted by cmgonzalez at 10:04 PM on March 31, 2009

If the guy looks the woman in the eyes for over 8.2 seconds he's probably smitten.

If the 8.2 seconds is interrupted by him walking into a bus shelter then it's a dead cert. (I have been than man).
posted by rongorongo at 2:20 AM on April 1, 2009

Funny, I get bored in line at the store and just start chatting with whomever is in the line next to me some times. Some people are fine with it, others freak out, not knowing what my "angle" is. Thing is, I don't have a non-obvious angle, I just want someone friendly to chat with in a boring situation. Some people are just paranoid (sometimes with good reason) and will not talk to you no matter how friendly you are. Other people will love to talk with you forever even if you just met them. Women have to be on their guard, moreso than men for a number of reasons. If you approach or make eye contact with a woman and have creepy or lecherous motives, they will usually pick up on it and avoid you. On the other hand, if you are a genuinely nice person and just want to make a friend, or have a nice chat, you are much more likely to succeed.

I guess what I am saying is if you are not experiencing the results you desire, looking at your motives and working on those will reap far greater benefits than trying to perfect the way you make eye contact. The eyes are windows to the soul, and will reflect what is within no matter how hard yo try to make them lie.
posted by jester69 at 8:41 AM on April 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Speaking as a young woman who is often weird eye-contact situations, the men I appreciate most (read: am not creeped out by) are the ones who are shy with eye contact but confidently spoken.

I liked thebazilists 'Victorian' eye contact scenario, and if that happened to me in a casual situation (with a man who is reasonably attractive and in my age range) I would giggle all the way home. Intense stares from men, especially those who are not in my age range, make me feel preyed upon and sometimes in danger.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 10:57 AM on April 1, 2009

I'm from southern California, a female, have lived in the big cities, and throughout most of my life NEVER chose to make eye contact with random strangers/street passers by. So who knows if anybody was looking at me? During the few instances I did look up and found someone looking at me, doesn't matter what the hell he looked like or was doing, he would immediately seem creepy in my mind.

I know a lot of other women (but not men) with my upbringing who just don't look around, ever, whether single or attached, so maybe it's a cultural thing and you're going to have to hope you're looking at someone from a more "street-friendly" culture. I guess I come from a place where "picking up random strangers in the street" is considered really tacky.

posted by The ____ of Justice at 12:02 PM on April 1, 2009

I'm (also) a female from Southern California, and I frequently make eye contact with strangers, even the creepy ones (but mostly so I can give 'em the old "I see you, motherfucker" look).

From reading through this thread it seems like some people like (and expect) eye contact and some do a lot to avoid it. I think your best bet, whether you want a girlfriend or a girl-friend is to just be easy going and don't expect anything from any random interaction (you can see from some of the comments here that any bad reactions you get may or may not have anything to do with you). Smile, say hi if it feels natural, keep going on your way. I think keeping it natural is important, even if nothing feels 'natural' to you at first. As with everything else in life, fake it till you make it.
posted by liverbisque at 5:07 PM on April 1, 2009

Also- maybe the best time to practice this easy-going friendliness is in the morning--- "good morning" sounds more casual and effortless than "good afternoon" ever does. "Good evening" sounds downright lecherous.
posted by liverbisque at 5:09 PM on April 1, 2009

liverbisque, I agree with the keeping it as natural as possible, but fake it till you make it? I feel those contradict each other.

I feel that it depends a lot on the type of situation you are in and if it feels comfortable and just yea.. completely natural. El Natural is the best way to go with eye contact and just keeping at as casual and as comfortable as possible.
posted by weh546 at 2:50 AM on April 2, 2009

There are lots of people here saying not to make eye contact. Are y'all kidding me? (Southern-ism for a reason.) There are two options.

1) He's creepy. If you make eye contact and give him a confident half smile, he will know that you are not a weak person, and that you are aware of your surroundings (so not a target for nasty crimes). If he hits on you, either give him a disgusted look and look away, or smile and keep walking.

2) He's friendly. If you make eye contact and acknowledge him, it will brighten his day and yours.

To answer the original question, for me the only type of eye contact that indicates flirting for me is contact with a shy smile, followed by looking away as soon as my eyes are met. Repeat several times.
posted by Night_owl at 10:31 AM on April 2, 2009

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