I'm interested! Not weird! Really!!
April 10, 2010 2:02 PM   Subscribe

How to make "interested" eye contact without seeming weird?

I'm a pretty socially awkward introverted guy (mid-20s), who has slowly over the past couple years started to break out of it somewhat. I am more open to talking about myself and making the dreaded small-talk (which I still can't stand, but I force myself through it now more than withdrawing completely) and conversations go a bit longer before the awkward silence, but it hasn't helped much in terms of my social situation (few friends, almost nonexistent social life), but over time I feel like I'm at least moving in a positive direction versus the stagnant existence I'm used to.

One of the techniques that I feel has helped somewhat has been with eye contact; not looking away as much when people look directly at me. But I often get the feeling that I keep my gaze too much, and then others look away or get a strange look on their face, which only reinforces the negative perception I'm trying to dissuade. I can't seem to find the balance between being socially anxious and not willing to make any eye contact, and socially confident and making eye contact but not in a creepy way. How can I develop the natural middle ground?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Have you seen the Guide to Flirting? It contains a lot of great information about how to behave in social situations, not only when flirting. There's a section about eye contact in particular, and it tells you how long to look at another person without being awkward. It's been kind of a lifesaver.

"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 pecknpah at 2:14 PM on April 10, 2010 [3 favorites]


Do it with confidence, but not bravado or with any expectations. Make it friendly, almost like you would if you met another guy you liked. Do it to make friends, not find a "date."
posted by caddis at 2:26 PM on April 10, 2010

The guide Pecknpah links to is good and you should definitely read the section on eye-contact in conversation. Basically, don't stare. Eye contact is just that: quick, brief contact then roam away as you speak.

When others are speaking you make more eye contact, but you can also look away (not all shifty-eyed and quick, but leisurely. Take your time.) You can still signal your interest with nods or "mm-hmms."
posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:36 PM on April 10, 2010

Leil Lowndes, How to Talk to Anyone, tip #2 (pp. 9-13, "How to strike everyone as intelligent and insightful by using your eyes"), and tip #3 (pp. 14-16, "How to use your eyes to make someone fall in love with you").
posted by Jaltcoh at 2:46 PM on April 10, 2010

You need a mantra. No, seriously. You need something that you can repeat in your head when you smile and try to make eye contact. Otherwise your brain is all over the place and worry creeps in and shows up on your face.

Your mantra needs to be something you A) BELIEVE about yourself, and B) reflects the emotions or thoughts you are trying to convey with your eyes. For example, if you look at girl and your mantra is something like, "I am a sexy God and super fuckable." Well, you're going to come off like an insane creep. If it's "This girl is way out of my league." you're going to come off as unsure and insecure. And if you don't have anything going on in your mind, well it's free to send whatever doubts it has out there to be perceived by others. Don't you want some control over what gets written? So, write it. And then practice. Some things work better than others. You get to try it out and see what works for you. You'll know by how you feel and the response you get and how that makes you feel. The nice thing is, nobody has to know the things you tell yourself. :)
posted by iamkimiam at 2:48 PM on April 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

I guess the only real thing is practice, but maybe thinking a little about some of these things might help — I might be off on some things, because it's one of those intuitive things that are hard to conceptualize, and I'm not exactly suave myself but basically confident and functional these days.

When listening, paying attention for me seems to involve also staring upwards into space, looking deeply at the table and breathing, etc; there's obviously a whole repertoire of tics related to active listening and comprehension which also help suspend eye contact, which suspension, yes, is necessary — the deep gaze feels best as highlights in a rhythm with plenty of "breathing room," for me at least, though I am no prodigy.

Maybe try to pay a little attention, not to the point of distraction of course, to when eye contact feels best, as in which parts of a story does it accompany best — I can't say, but it's probably related to beginnings and endings, intimacy, intensity, pauses, nonobviousness; the gaze has several functions, as intensifier but also as a friendly relief, signal of understanding and "being on the same page," or with appropriate modulation of the eyebrows signal of the opposite. (Those explicit things like giving the "huh?" look are much easier than the neutral contact, I think.)

I was going to write a paragraph about talking too, but writing all this down makes me feel a little autistic, so figure it out. Maybe this: vis-à-vis confidence, see gazing as a kind of recognition of fellowship, not a debt nor gift — an empathy boost, a tiny communion, sometimes a tease, but unless the situation legitimately demands it never any kind of token payment or something rationed; you're just talking, it's not a trial or game.

Also, here's a tip I find marvelous, which I heard from a podcast by Gil Fronsdal probably about the Buddhist precept of right speech: check in on your body, breathing, posture. If you just occasionally "return to the breath" as they say, straighten up, and try to enjoy the (subtly wonderful) sensation of general embodiedness and aliveness, you might find more ease and joy in talking — I find it wonderfully discharges tension and overall is probably the most easily transformative little things I know of, and it doesn't just apply to conversation.

Have fun out there!
posted by mbrock at 2:48 PM on April 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have trouble with this sometimes, too, and so have developed some helpful non-annoying tics to break up the "stare or not stare?" tension in long conversations.

1. Fiddle with stuff--napkins, pens, whatever, glancing up occasionally to smile and show you're still listening. Works while talking, too--in fact, if you glance up when saying something important, it has more impact.

(in general, if you can get in situations where you're doing other stuff while talking--hiking, fixing things, eating--the whole awkward/staring problem is usually not an issue. Always something else going on to break up the tension).

2. Thoughtfully frowning into space, nodding, then glance back occasionally while someone talks.

3. Having conversations whilst buzzed or drunk. Then nobody cares!

Overall, the more interesting a conversation you're having, the less you have to worry about all of this. It's only awkward/early/boring conversations that should require you to worry about eye contact.
posted by emjaybee at 3:42 PM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's a common concept of pacing that shows up in NLP (and it's insidious pick-up art cousins). Just do what they do. If you make eye contact with a girl (assuming you're straight) and she looks for a moment and looks shyly away do the same. If she's maintaining eye contact and smiling, do the same. That's it.

You can initiate the pacing, too. Maybe you smile, glance away and back again. Maybe she'll do something similar. If she's returning your gestures to you, that's a friendly sign.
posted by cmoj at 3:47 PM on April 10, 2010

Keep in mind that how much eye contact is appropriate varies from culture to culture (and also among subcultures and regions within the US). So there's no one "right" answer of how long to maintain eye contact with someone.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:33 PM on April 10, 2010

The worst thing about these situations is that they tend to make us overly conscious of ourselves and our actions, physically, down to the minutest detail, which is always so awkward. Perhaps this is why so many people are more at ease combining social and romantic interactions with alcohol!

As a female, I would much rather prefer some consistent eye contact then none at all, and I don't particularly find anything about it to be 'creepy', sure, it's flattering! Creepiness is something which emanates from within, and can generally be determined with even minimal eye contact.

I would suggest trying to put such thoughts to the back of your mind, have confidence in your good intentions, and this ought to be repaid in kind.

Good luck. I've ben there, too.
posted by noella at 7:42 PM on April 10, 2010

And to add: I fully agree with cmoj.
posted by noella at 7:43 PM on April 10, 2010

I'm echoing caddis, but SMILE. There's nothing creepier than someone staring at you with a dead expression on his face. You can't go wrong with a smile. It can be quick, right before you look away, if that's what you want to do. A smile is the difference between "Hey, I like your look, what's up?" and "I'm gonna follow you home, climb a ladder up to your bedroom window, and watch you sleep while sharpening my collection of knives."
posted by oinopaponton at 10:05 PM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Glance, look away (down is best), look back, smile.
It's tricky to pull off in practice, so there's that...
posted by Gilbert at 11:39 PM on April 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't say I'm all that great at this even now, but I've been in your social position before. I really think that all this eye contact, body language stuff is instinctual and subconscious - why worry about it? I know for sure that if I'm talking to some girl the last thing I'm worried about is if my eye contact's conveying my interest. I'm wondering if she has a boyfriend, what her interests are, what things we have in common, if she has hot friends (hey, sometimes you need a plan B)...

What I'm saying is, you won't have to rack your brains trying to figure out the subtleties of eye contact if you're actually interested. This is surprisingly hard, especially for us not so well-socialized people. Sometimes you'll see a pretty girl and think to yourself, wow I'm interested. Then you walk over and try to start a conversation and realize you don't know what to ask her. Or maybe she starts talking about how much she loves rocks. What? I don't like rocks. This is never gonna work. When it's not clicking it doesn't matter how much you gaze longingly into her eyes. Don't optimize for something that doesn't change outcomes. Try and learn to be interested in people.

But if you want to ignore all that and just worry about the eyes, I suggest you try and look at her as much as she looks at you. What a surprise. If you accidentally lock eyes too long and it gets awkward, defuse the tension by making a joke. "Whoa, sorry I was staring at you you have really nice eyes" CLUTCH SAVE.
posted by wonnage at 2:59 AM on April 11, 2010

Holy shit I just noticed I used the wrong "it's" and am thus a retarded.
posted by cmoj at 12:53 PM on April 11, 2010

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