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February 21, 2011 4:34 AM   Subscribe

How did I develop such an aversion to looking people in the eye, and how I can overcome it? It was recently pointed out to me that I unconsciously avoid eye contact in all but the most intimate circumstances---one on one conversations, with friends, etc. Apparently, this makes me look "shifty-eyed" or even like I'm trying to peek down a woman's shirt, so I'd like to stop, but it's very difficult. Not only do I do it unconsciously, but making eye contact with strangers or more casual acquaintances actively feels wrong.

I didn't even realize I was doing this until I was asked how I remembered people's shoes so well (to the point of being able to describe five or six different pairs belonging to a single girl) and I said, without thinking, "Oh, so I can tell who just walked by without looking up."

Because, now that I think about it, I do automatically look down when I pass people in the street. In conversation I look somewhere between a man's mouth and his sternum. Sometimes when I forget not to, I look that far down on a woman too. In social dances where we swap partners, I look past my partner's ear. If I accidentally catch a stranger's eye, I flick my gaze away immediately, without any conscious decision.

I can shake hands when I'm introduced or check someone's pupil reflex or, with close friends and family just look a man in the eyes. But anything longer or less intimate just feels wrong. I can't explain it. It produces a profound discomfort, almost like when someone stands way too close for no good reason and it's all you can do not to inch away.

Any other Mefites had the same problem? And how did you solve it?
posted by d. z. wang to Human Relations (24 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
In the last couple of years I have also developed exactly this habit, and I am interested in the answers here.

I am now living in a new, friendlier country. One effort I am making is specifically looking towards strangers long enough to see if they make eye contact, and smiling if they do. When I do the "automatically look down when I pass people in the street" here, I often realize (through peripheral vision or whatever) that I have just missed a smile from them. So I am all "shit, I just blew off a new friend"...

I wonder where you live, and if the culture of acknowledging strangers/ignoring strangers could reinforce/help break down your behavior,
posted by Meatbomb at 4:42 AM on February 21, 2011

Yeah. I've did this after moving out of an Asian country where direct eye contact is made a lot less than here in Australia (it's considered aggressive), at a time when I had signficant anxiety and conflict avoidance issues.

Start by being conscious that you're doing it as often as possible. Remind yourself that you're doing it while you're doing it. Then start to correct the issue for short periods of time, once or twice in any one encounter or conversation. Then start to extend those periods of time, and the number of times that you meet someone else's gaze during an encounter or conversation. After a while it will become habit to look up and into someone else's eyes.

Also, try to remember that unbroken eye contact isn't what goes on in normal conversation. People meet each other's gaze at significant moments. eg When a question is asked, a statement is made, when feelings are expected to be shared, etc. So you don't need to be staring unblinkingly into another person's eyes the whole time you talk to them. Just at the right moments.

If trying to do it yourself is really freaking you out in some way, consider taking it to a psychologist. Good luck.
posted by Ahab at 4:51 AM on February 21, 2011

Habits and protocols of eye contact can be cultural, at least familial. In preparing to teach among native Americans, such instructions as these and my experience confirmed:
"Do not expect students to look you in the eye when you are speaking to them. This is a sign of trust and respect in the dominant culture, but a sign of defiance and hostility in many Native American cultures. Do not persistently look directly at Native American students when speaking to them, this can be perceived as hostile, intrusive, and/or disturbing. Often, Native Americans look off in the same direction, not at each other, when speaking."
This worked fine for me, 'cause my native, ahem, geek culture had similar standards:
How can you tell an aggressive computer programmer?

He looks at your shoes.
posted by gregoreo at 5:08 AM on February 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

If I'm generally calm and in good spirits, eye contact isn't as uncomfortable. When I can't look people in the eyes, for me it's a sign that I need to go get some tough exercise, relieve stress, and get high on endorphins.

Meditation and helping others also helps.

A quiet conscience, a placid soul, and a comfortably exhausted body will all be conductive towards peaceful eye contact.
posted by krilli at 5:14 AM on February 21, 2011

Your behavior could depend on any number of things. Is it culturally acceptable where you were raised to make eye contact? Is this a new thing or have you done it all your life?
posted by cooker girl at 5:23 AM on February 21, 2011

I find myself doing this when I am either thinking about something, or anxious.

I am a visual thinker, so if I have to visualize something complex, I have to look away or close my eyes.

If I am anxious, looking someone in the eyes makes my brain shut down.
posted by gjc at 5:25 AM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

I agree that anxiety and discomfort have a lot to do with it. I was in a meeting recently where a dude went off on the train to crazy town and NOBODY could look anybody else in the eye for the duration of his crazy-talk. Tremendously awkward. When it's happening all the time, I'd assume you're suffering social anxiety, or you're stressed, or similar. And then I think sometimes that anxiety becomes habit and you can't stop and trying to stop creates more anxiety. Barring social anxiety so severe it needs treatment, I'd just assume it was normal social anxiety that had turned into a habit, and try to retrain myself. And be nice to yourself when you're tired; everyone has a harder time making eye contact when tired.

with strangers on the street I wouldn't worry about it. I notice in high-eye-contact areas there's always a pretty large proportion of people finding ways to distract themselves with their phone/coat buttons/small child when the "eye-contact-and-smile" moment approaches on the street with strangers. Just because it's normative doesn't mean everyone's comfortable with it. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:42 AM on February 21, 2011

It can be weird looking people right in the eyes during conversation- a little too much like I'm looking into them. It can make me feel more comfortable if i look at the bridge of their nose. That way I'm looking at them, but not in a "down into the depthsof your soul" type situation
posted by raccoon409 at 6:06 AM on February 21, 2011

I show too much on my face, I suppose, and people think I'm upset when I'm not, so I have gotten out of the habit of looking at people.
posted by By The Grace of God at 6:07 AM on February 21, 2011

There's some cultural input here, I think. I find it incredibly uncomfortable to look people in the eyes - well, for more than a fleeting contact, anyway - and I suspect it's largely down to being somewhat shy as a kid and having been a kid in sixties and seventies northern Britain. Back then and there, looking people straight in the eyes guaranteed a "What are you staring it?" response, and usually not in such polite terms. To this day most of the Brits of my age (and some younger) seem to have a similar attitude to eye contact during conversation: keep it fleeting and don't do it too often.

I'm not sure this needs to be a problem, but if you're in a culture where it's seen as rude not to make eye contact then try doing what I do - make it, but keep it as brief and intermittent as you can feel reasonably comfortable with. Over time you may find you feel okay about extending the duration of contact.
posted by Decani at 6:27 AM on February 21, 2011

With normative cultural/social behaviors, it may seem like everyone else is just born knowing how to do something. But really, most behaviors are learned (whether subconsciously or consciously). You just need to actively study the thing in order to emulate it, and then practice until it comes naturally. Look at how other people hold conversations -- actors, people across the street, whatever. Then act that way yourself, as often as you can, until eventually it feels right. Remember that eye contact helps you to feel engaged and to show engagement in a conversation; and so much non-verbal communication is expressed on the face, just think of what you're missing!
posted by Chris4d at 6:29 AM on February 21, 2011

Maintaining constant eye contact can be a bit creepy. The conversation isn't happening in someone's eyes, it's happening through facial expressions, momentary smiles or mouth quirks, hand gestures, body language and changes of posture, etc. I'm a real hand-waver, and when somebody's staring at my eyes, it's really disconcerting, like they're going to miss what I'm saying. On the other hand, the same is true if they're staring at my feet. Most conversations, I think my focal point moves all over, but as a default, my gaze will rest on their face - loosely, not a tight eye-to-eye, or staring intently at their nose, more like a few feet behind them, such that the whole face or even whole person is "what's going on".
posted by aimedwander at 6:36 AM on February 21, 2011

I have difficulties with eye-contact norms too, though at this point it's mostly when I'm thinking about it. (I may still be acting abnormally in some people's eyes* when I'm not thinking about it, too, but it doesn't bother me then.) In my case, the trouble stems from a misinterpretation of my previous behaviour that was eventually brought to my attention, and kinda horrified me when it was.

I was a shy, nerdy, and largely friendless kid, so a lot of standard social protocols that most people absorbed at a young age have been a bit difficult for me to pick up. As a result, I apparently developed a very direct gaze, and tended in my late teens to look people directly in the eye a lot while talking to them. When I was working in a coffee shop at about age 19, I was informed that somehow, since I am female, this made men think that I was flirting with them. Which I was most emphatically not. So in reaction to finding out that I was sending this very inaccurate signal, I went through a several-year phase of not looking people in the eye *ever* unless they were very good friends. It's been a bit weird coming back from that, and I still have trouble sometimes on the street. It's hard to know how much eye contact is too much.

The only advice I have to offer on this is to try to figure out why you're unnerved by eye contact, and then decide whether that's a reasonable thing you wish to continue, or based on false pretenses. In my case, I am pretty sure that not every random person I slouch by on the street is going to make the automatic assumption that I am seriously considering the contents of their trousers if I happen to smile at them (It helps that I am 31 and no longer working in customer service.) So I can ease up a bit. On the other hand, I still limit the length of my eye contact with strangers in bars. And if I'm feeling antisocial on a particular day, I feel in no way guilty just shunning eye contact in general.

And now I'm gonna be thinking about this all day again. Sigh. It's all right, it's a few hours before I have to make eye contact with anyone besides my cats anyway.

*ahem, sorry about that
posted by Because at 6:43 AM on February 21, 2011

Why don't "we" trust people who are shifty-eyed? It's because we see them as trying to hide something. Not looking people in the eyes isn't really the problem but a symptom and usually needs to be addressed on a more basic level. Making eye contact makes us feel things and often we don't want these feelings known (not that they would necessarily BE known, but we can feel this way.) Feelings might be fear, embarrassment, vulnerability, guilt, contempt, admiration. Who knows, because we often don't want to be aware of these feelings either.

To learn to make eye contact, first investigate what you think you need to hide. Then you can do a little CBT on yourself both to evaluate whether your emotional response makes sense in the current situation, and to recognize that the other person probably can't tell what you're feeling anyway.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:51 AM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best prescription:

1) In the beginning, aim for direct eye contact just once and for just for a half second.
2) After that, don't look down--look to either side of them, as you're listening, thinking or talking.
3) Once you've mastered that, try for twice in a conversation.
4) Once you're comfortable with that, try for eye contact when something meaningful is said by them or you.
5) Finally: it's perfectly normal not to ever have a conversation in total direct eye to eye contact. That's not the goal--the goal is eye contact enough to communicate what you would like to communicate.
posted by Murray M at 6:56 AM on February 21, 2011

Following up on Murray -- Practice!

When you're out and about, make it a habit to make eye contact with passers by. Don't be a creep about it -- just glance long enough to note eye color.

It feels odd at first, but that drops away. Most people won't notice or care. A few will glance and look away. A staring few will return your gaze, and to those you get to say, "good morning," or "good afternoon", which is nice, too.
posted by notyou at 7:41 AM on February 21, 2011

Where I live (Toronto) full eye contact with strangers on the street is not always appreciated.

Local songwriter Murray McLauchlan mentioned this in one of his lyrics:
"Went to the Silver Dollar, looked a stranger in the eye..."
posted by ovvl at 9:13 AM on February 21, 2011

I've had this problem to a greater or lesser extent ever since... forever. I'm conscious of it and try to make more eye contact than I usually would in situations like job interviews where people might interpret it as something other than the social anxiety linked habit that it is. It gets better the longer I've known somebody, to the extent that some friends when I mention it will say "huh, I never noticed." But it's pretty much always going to be an issue when I first meet someone and my good ol' fight or flight nervous system hasn't caught up with the social comfort I've learned as I've grown. My conscious mind is happy to meet new people, but my body is still wired the way it's wired, and unless I'm very specifically tying to look people in the eye it'll default to what it's comfortable with.

It's an aspergery trait too, enough so that this guy titled his memoir with it.
posted by MsMolly at 9:32 AM on February 21, 2011

Not looking into the camera among other fumbles cost Richard Nixon the first 1960 presidential debate. I've been present when interviewees were coached to turn their head if not their whole body to face a questioner or the camera. This shift of stance seems natural on screen, but is zanily theatrical when there's no camera and an audience of one.

I speculate that TV and its successors have permanently raised the perceived value of eye contact in interpersonal communication.
posted by gregoreo at 9:42 AM on February 21, 2011

I don't know how to learned to avoid eye contact in conversations, but I bet you learned to avoid it outside of conversations as a way to avoid drawing attention to yourself. I'm pretty sure that's what happened to me, since I was a very shy child and I mostly just wanted everyone to leave me alone. It only occurred to me very recently that I still habitually avoid eye contact, even when I very much want to meet people. I'm trying to break that habit now.
posted by shponglespore at 9:52 AM on February 21, 2011

I am very very shy and have some neurological variations that include really deep reluctance to look other people in the eye.

So I look at other people's foreheads. Nobody can tell the difference. Or ears, in a group of people who are sitting down.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:30 AM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

My father was cross-eyed. Looking him in the eyes was a very disquieting experience, so I learned to avoid it. Lately, I've been increasing my comfort level with eye contact in conversation by practicing on my cats (female cats--try this with male cats, or a cat who doesn't know you, at your own risk). They will only tolerate a glancing, momentary direct eye-gaze without treating it as a threat. I've trained myself to accept and feel comfortable with that cat-like level of eye contact in conversations with fellow humans, too. It's a start.
posted by Corvid at 1:45 PM on February 21, 2011

Do what I worked out how to do when I was a little kid practising lying to my mother while looking her straight in the eye: simply defocus.

Works brilliantly.
posted by flabdablet at 10:55 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Eyebrows are another good point of focus if you want to try faking it before you make it.
posted by Zozo at 3:05 PM on February 23, 2011

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