You can have my eyes or my brain, but not both...
January 13, 2010 11:57 AM   Subscribe

They say you should look people in the eyes when you're talking to them. But I'm unable to think while looking another person in the eyes. This leaves me in a position where either 1) I have to look away while I'm thinking/talking, occasionally glancing at the person - which makes me appear shifty; or 2) I look the person in the eyes and stupid or at least ineloquent things come out of my mouth. Can I solve this? Which is the lesser evil?

I don't know what causes this, but I think it's part anxiety and part me-ness. (I already take something for anxiety / depression). I was always shy/anxious when I was a child and couldn't meet someone's eyes for more than a few seconds at a time until my twenties. I can hold a gaze indefinitely now, but my brain still refuses to attend. Hence the problem outlined above. This is especially bothersome to me this week since I'm going to be part of a group of 10 answering questions about our experience and backgrounds in order to win a work contract.

So - what can I do to improve this? What should I give people: my eyes or my brain? And over time can I get the two to work together?
posted by kitcat to Human Relations (26 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Look at the bridge of the other person's nose. It seems to them like you're looking in their eyes and they have your attention.
posted by IanMorr at 12:01 PM on January 13, 2010

Can you think while making only occasional eye contact? That's what most people do while talking anyway.
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:02 PM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

You could try to defocus your eyes, while still looking in the direction of theirs, perhaps.
posted by sunshinesky at 12:02 PM on January 13, 2010

Best answer: I sometimes can't think when I look someone in the eyes, and sometimes can't think if I'm looking at anything and have to close my eyes. So I don't think it's that unusual.

But looking directly into someone's eyes is often weird -- I think it's not so much you should look into a person's eyes as "at their face", if that makes any sense. You don't want to hold someone's gaze indefinitely unless you're in some sort of contest.

Anyway, lots of people are shy, it's not that freaky. In your meeting, lean back in your chair, let any materials take up space in front of you, and fidget slowly (slowly! not distractingly) with a pen or paper clip, it'll give you something to look at when you need to look away.

Most importantly, though, I think the thing is not to make too big a deal out of it to yourself.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:05 PM on January 13, 2010

So - what can I do to improve this? What should I give people: my eyes or my brain?

And fer chrissakes the answer is most definitely your brain.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:06 PM on January 13, 2010

Yeah, occasional eye contact is the way to go. Many people find more than a few seconds of eye contact to be offputting, as it can be parsed as either very intimate or very aggressive. There are some cultures where you don't look people in the eye, particularly if you're of lower station.

I say go for frequent but brief eye contact. Enough to let the person know that you're paying attention to them and what they're saying, and that you're present in the moment, but not so much that you either lose your train of thought or things start to get awkward.
posted by valkyryn at 12:06 PM on January 13, 2010

Yeah, agreeing with everyone. Actual prolonged eye contact is creepy.

For speaking to a crowd, I go with looking out over their heads, just to keep myself from looking down.
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:08 PM on January 13, 2010

Best answer: Your mouth should be a step or two behind what you have already decided to say so it gives you a second to blink and think of your next conversational point. Blinking is ok and will not make you look shifty unless you start fluttering your eyelids.

Also, the shifty thing is if you look away from the person a lot at other distractions. If you look at their shirt or their hands, you are still looking at them, so it appears less shifty. There are other tricks you can use by talking with your hands when you make some points and then looking at your hands to get the other person to focus on them. In some people defocusing their eyes will make them look cross-eyed which may not improve someone else's opinion.
posted by JJ86 at 12:11 PM on January 13, 2010

Best answer: Just speak in a way that feels comfortable to you, without making rules for your gaze. You will naturally make eye contact when it's necessary to make your point. Creepiness only comes onto the scene when one tries to act in a way that doesn't come naturally.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:14 PM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I remember once reading a key defining factor of a sociopath (based on some study or other): He/she always smiles and looks you in the eye.

My gut tells me you're over-thinking this to the point that anything you do is going to come across as stilted and/or weird. Yes, it's good to be conscious of how your body language etc is affecting others' impression of you. Yes, you can go way too far with this.

Relax and focus on the substance of what you're seeking to communicate. If this means no (or limited) eye contact, then let it be.
posted by philip-random at 12:15 PM on January 13, 2010

I think "look people in the eyes when you're talking to them" is more of an "on average" kind of thing -- if you LOCKED eyes with someone and kept it unbroken throughout the course of a conversation, it would come across as either flirty or creepy.

It's more of an "on average" kind of thing -- looking at them with some breaks in eye contact as the conversation flows. You know, a few seconds at them, a glance upward to think, a glance at them, a laughing eye-roll if one of you said something funny, a few seconds back at them, etc.

I think the advice to "look someone in the eyes" is more to stop behavior like "stare at your shoes the entire time," or to stop you from doing what a dear friend of mine used to do -- he also gets a little nervous about eye contact when he first meets someone, so when he was talking to someone he'd just met he used to let his eyes go unfocused and stare at some point in the middle distance between them. Unfortunately, since he's tall, this often came across as "he's staring at my boobs" when he was talking to women, and it got him into a little bit of trouble sometimes...
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:16 PM on January 13, 2010

And it's a cultural thing, people in some cultures don't have this fixation with looking others in the eye.
posted by mareli at 12:16 PM on January 13, 2010

Great question. I have trouble with this too. For me, looking someone in the eyes doesn't actually stop my brain--it just starts it thinking about looking about someone in the eyes. Unfortunately my brain also gets distracted when I think I'm not looking at them enough, for similar reasons.

So generally I try not to worry about it.
posted by ropeladder at 12:24 PM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hmmmm. It seems that people used to critique me so often about not holding eye contact that I've gone too far in the other direction and seem like a sociopath. Thanks for the clue-in. Dear lord.
posted by kitcat at 12:25 PM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I remember once reading a key defining factor of a sociopath (based on some study or other): He/she always smiles and looks you in the eye.

Holy crap I'm a sociopath. Seriously, this isn't helpful. The whole sociopaths are always charismatic thing doesn't always hold (some are, some aren't) and lots of extroverted/charismatic people are otherwise perfectly normal. I like watching how the other person is reacting to what I say and my moral compass is fully functioning.

I do have trouble looking people in the eye when I'm listening though. It's because I'm focussed on processing what they're telling me, similar to how your eye contact drops off when you're thinking about what you're saying. Brain wins. Either my eyes slide off to the side or I watch their mouth, so I've learned to make sure I also nod where appropriate, look back towards the eyes/face occasionally (which takes a conscious effort), and recapitulate what they said when it's my turn to speak (so it's clear I really was listening). You can maintain a connection without being creepy, looking at their face rather than right in the eye is a good idea. You don't need to hold their gaze per se, just show that yes, actually, you're talking to them and not the floor.

Also looking someone in the eye and smiling when you first meet them and just generally not darting your eyes around the place or staring fixedly downwards when they first start talking to you goes a long way to setting a good impression. Then when you get into the guts of the conversation and forget about what your eyes are doing you should look thoughful (which you will be) rather than flakey.
posted by shelleycat at 12:52 PM on January 13, 2010

I tend to look at people's mouths. No one's ever said anything about it to me, so I assume it's not creepy.
posted by amandarose at 1:06 PM on January 13, 2010

I'm not into a lot of eye contact while talking, it gets overstimulating. So I don't think there is anything wrong with not worrying about it. Ideally we'd just speak into each other's neck napes, in low light. Saving eye contact for lulls or when something particularly brilliant or resonant is said. Like flirting at a loud party.
posted by okbye at 1:24 PM on January 13, 2010

I also have a habit at looking at a person's teeth, especially if there's something weird about them. I'm not sure why, and it's probably off-putting to some people, but no one has ever said anything except my wife.
posted by elder18 at 1:30 PM on January 13, 2010

my dad doesnt look people in the eyes. he looks at the tip of your nose or your eyebrow.
posted by phritosan at 1:36 PM on January 13, 2010

Best answer: SIRC Guide to Flirting might help you out (this applies to all conversation, not just flirting.)

"Once a conversation begins, it is normal for eye contact to be broken as the speaker looks away. In conversations, the person who is speaking looks away more than the person who is listening, and turn-taking is governed by a characteristic pattern of looking, eye contact and looking away.

So, to signal that you have finished speaking and invite a response, you then look back at your target again. To show interest while your target is speaking, you need to look at his/her face about three-quarters of the time, in glances lasting between one and seven seconds. The person speaking will normally look at you for less than half this time, and direct eye contact will be intermittent, rarely lasting more than one second. When your target has finished speaking, and expects a response, he or she will look at you and make brief eye contact again to indicate that it is your turn.

The basic rules for pleasant conversation are: glance at the other person's face more when you are listening, glance away more when you are speaking and make brief eye contact to initiate turn-taking. The key words here are 'glance' and 'brief': avoid prolonged staring either at the other person or away. "
posted by Solon and Thanks at 1:54 PM on January 13, 2010 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Solon and Thanks - that's potentially like-changing information. Thank you.
posted by kitcat at 2:25 PM on January 13, 2010

That whole page is amazing and highly-recommended. It should be required reading for everyone.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:45 PM on January 13, 2010

It's totally normal to have trouble thinking and making eye contact at the same time. People vary in their breaking point but sooner or later most will be overwhelmed by too much eye contact. Seconding the suggestion to look at the bridge of their nose, as well as the page recommended just above.
posted by tel3path at 5:26 PM on January 13, 2010

Don't get too obsessive about the eye contact thing. People will critique you for all kinds of nonsense, whatever their pet peeve happens to be at the time, and there's no use getting worked up over it.

Some people are shy, and don't make eye contact as much as others. People understand that, and adjust their expectations accordingly.

And if they don't, so what? If "Kitcat doesn't make eye contact enough" is the worst thing that's said about you, then I'd say you're doing a pretty good job!

If this is something you want to improve about yourself, then I'm all in favor of self-improvement. But don't tie yourself up in knots over it, is all I'm saying.
posted by ErikaB at 5:48 PM on January 13, 2010

I was about to chime in with the "looking is more important when you're listening" notion, which I've read in a couple of social interaction type books. I'm surprised it took so long here, but Solon's passage pretty much sums it up.

The listener showing interest is obviously important from the speaker's perspective, but I'd think that looking while they talk also helps you observe their facial/body language as they do it.

Not sure if I follow it myself, though. I get the feeling I'm in the same boat as Shelleycat... Having trouble looking at the speaker without getting distracted and losing focus of what's being said.

Supposedly occasional nods are good, and if you start nodding more frequently, it's a subtle way of saying "Okay, finish it up, I gotta go."
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 12:18 AM on January 14, 2010

Best answer: I totally know what you're talking about--I've got my fair history of saying stupid things mid conversation due to not being able to step back and think.

That said, though, I wanted to mention that personality isn't conveyed solely by your eyes--people take in the entire body language. Shiftiness is conveyed by excessive looking away (right and left) PLUS actually turning your head away PLUS shifting the weight back and forth between your legs.

It is perfectly normal to look away (I usually look down) while thinking as long as the rest of your body remains in an open stance facing the listener, signaling that you are engaged and intend to stay in the conversation.

Anyways, if you want to signal that you're thinking, the universal body language is touching your hand on your chin (sometimes followed by rubbing it). If you keep an open stance, look away in one direction and touch your chin with a hand almost everyone will interpret this as you thinking about something.

Good luck and great success!
posted by chalbe at 6:17 AM on January 14, 2010

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