Look.... at... me....
January 27, 2013 2:18 PM   Subscribe

Sometimes when I am in a three-person conversation the other two people make lots of eye contact but I am excluded. I hate this so much! Am I doing something wrong? How do I make them include me?

This is sometimes the story of my life! And I would really like to change that... Tips on how to be more present and look-at-able in a three-plus-way conversation please!
posted by dinosaurprincess to Human Relations (18 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
The two in your gif look like Ron and Hermione from the Harry Potter movies. They ended up marrying. Do you tend to go out with people who are seeing each other? If so, there won't be much you can do---the phrase "third wheel" exists because lots of other people have tried and failed before you.
posted by d. z. wang at 2:47 PM on January 27, 2013

Sorry, to be more explicit, what I mean is, if it bothers you when the two others in a conversation have eyes only for one another, you might want to reduce how often you hang out with these couples and substitute more conversations with single people or with couples who have some attention for the outside world. You're probably not going to have much success trying to hold the attention of people who really want to focus only on each other, and they'll probably not appreciate your attempts.
posted by d. z. wang at 2:51 PM on January 27, 2013

Response by poster: Oops just to clarify: I realise this is normal when I am around couples, this question isn't about being a third wheel (which I don't mind). I only used a harry potter gif to go with the reference in my question name. Usually in the scenario I am describing we are all acquaintances.
posted by dinosaurprincess at 2:59 PM on January 27, 2013

I have been there. Sometimes it seems like the other two people are just closer to each other than to me. Sometimes it seems like they purposely want to exclude me. Sometimes I'm an introvert with two extroverts. And sometimes for younger people it's a status thing to establish your connection with the higher status person in a group by talking to them in front of everyone else about what you have in common with them.

I can tell you it is usually a mistake to wait to be invited into the conversation. To many people silence means that you aren't interested in participating. It's also a mistake to blame them for not making space in the conversation for you. They may think you are happy with less participation, or they may just not have the social grace / talent to try to create a conversation where attention flows more or less equally. Or they may be so caught up in their conversation that they don't realize all the bases aren't getting covered.

So you'll need to step up and acquire that talent. Try inserting yourself into the conversation. If they are talking about dogs and you don't own a dog, ask a question they can both answer. "How long have you had dogs?" Make it a three-way conversation.

It's not easy and for me it takes an incredible amount of energy. So don't be hard on yourself when it's not happening.

If your best efforts are ignored or snubbed, find different people to hang out with. Or hang out one on one.
posted by bunderful at 3:01 PM on January 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I know this feeling. What works for me is taking a step back to consider whether perhaps (a) I'm being rude by expecting to be included or (b) they're being rude by refusing to include me.

For (a): I either float away to talk to others (e.g. at a party if they'd withdrawn to a corner) or ignore them and occupy myself (e.g. if we'd all shown up to a work meeting early and I realized they were talking about business not relevant to me).

For (b): I either interject myself into the conversation by asking a question, occupy myself for a bit then try again, or say goodbye and remove myself from the situation. If you and two friends make plans to hang out together, no one else included, and then they ignore you for long periods of time, they are clearly in the wrong. I mean, conversation topics fluctuate and sometimes one person is left out for a while -- but if that continues after you take a break to use the bathroom, get a drink, check your phone, etc., it's rude of them. But you can't control their behavior, only your reaction.
posted by ecsh at 3:10 PM on January 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't think it's just because the poster is hanging out only with (potential) couples.

This happens to me to, a lot, and with people who I know for certain have exactly the same type of relationship with each other as I have with either of them (coworkers, friends, etc.). Sometimes it reaches quite ridiculous proportions: a coworker comes in to talk to me about a project, yet within five minutes inexplicably, gradually turns away from me and starts talking to my office mate - still about *my* project, which my office mate knows nothing about, and I just sit there, like I'm invisible.

The best I could figure out is that some people, like my office mate, are more socially engaged with the world around them: they make more eye contact with others, their faces display more varied and subtle emotions, their body language shows more interest in others. On the other hand, people like me and perhaps the poster, might seem less open to social contact, so they appear (subconsciously) like a less appealing conversation partner. I haven't found a way to counteract this when it happens; all that I can think of is to insist on being part of the conversation and keep talking, but since I'm not particularly talkative, that's a rather hard road.
posted by Ender's Friend at 3:14 PM on January 27, 2013

To offer a different perspective, I find it really hard to control eye contact in a situation with multiple conversation partners. Even when what I'm saying pertains to multiple people in front of me, I tend to focus on one specific person. On the other hand, I don't want to look like Jason Alexander in a McDonald's commercial and especially not all WHAT DO YOU THINK, LINDA? from Truffault's Fahrenheit 451. Consider taking this possibility into account.
posted by Nomyte at 3:26 PM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, forgot to add: Does it also happen to you that your order is often forgotten in coffee shops, restaurants, or such places? Or that the person at the counter doesn't notice you and gets another person's order first? Because this happens to me often, and I think it's also a result of the lack of adequate body language/facial expression/eye contact thing. Somehow I don't register as a "person" to other people, unless they pay close attention.
posted by Ender's Friend at 3:28 PM on January 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

I have a gift for stating the obvious, so if I'm doing it here, just move on, but what I wonder when I read your question is about your behavior(s) in conversation. Are you mostly remarking on the conversation (i.e., "really?" Or "That's so funny!") or asking questions? I think being a good listener and asking relevant open-ended questions can deal you in on a game you're otherwise left out of. Asking irrelevant, you-centered, pesky questions, of course, will just get you ignored. (Not that you're doing that! Just saying.)
posted by dreamphone at 4:23 PM on January 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

First check your assumptions. Are you sure they are making lots of eye contact? Most people don't maintain as much direct eye contact as is often thought.

Are you doing something to make eye contact unpleasant? In my case overly intense eye contact really disturbs me. Perhaps you hold eye contact for uncomfortably long periods of time. There are cross cultural differences in this - Germans can make me very very uncomfortable for example because Germans hold eye contact for far longer than Canadians or the English.

Geography matters. Pay attention to where you chose to be. Are you too close? Are you off to the side? A little behind one person? It is often hard to include people in rectangular seating arrangements because it is inter-personally difficult to turn and look at a person sitting immediately next to you shoulder to shoulder because it is far too intimate if the relationship isn't.
posted by srboisvert at 5:47 PM on January 27, 2013

I wonder if the other two people have a stronger presence in some way, for example they are physically bigger or they are faster or louder talkers or quicker to speak.
posted by Dansaman at 7:49 PM on January 27, 2013

Just to bring it up, it may not be 100% things that you are doing. Are you different in some way than the people you are talking to? As an asian woman, I've found that this happens a lot more when I'm the lone woman or the lone non-white person.
posted by prex at 9:37 PM on January 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Fascinating question. I've played all 3 roles in this dynamic at various times, and, like you, have done a lot of thinking about it. My conclusion: Everything else being equal, a person will address the member of the group who best combines authority and sympathy. If I'm right about this, it may not give you much to work on, but I find it helps me to relax about the situation, since I'm able to accept that in a given case, I'm really not the best audience for the person speaking. If I wanted to become a better audience, I'd probably do some work to increase my emotional intelligence, which isn't that high.
posted by markcmyers at 6:41 AM on January 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

One thing I've noticed is the "circle of shoulders" effect, namely that in conversations, people naturally point their shoulders generally towards their physically-closest conversation partners. In a pair, two people often end up with facing, shoulders parallel (at least parallel-ish). You can easily convey disinterest by breaking this and facing sort of away from the person you're speaking to.

For three or more people, if you aren't in the circle (polygon) of shoulders, it often relegates you to be more of an observer. Plus, since people can't see your face or your cues that you want to speak, it's harder to break into the conversation.

Not sure if this'll help you, but watch the shoulders the next time you're in a tripartite conversation, and notice whether yours are included.
posted by bookdragoness at 6:57 AM on January 28, 2013

Are you taller or shorter than average? I've accidentally caught myself excluding people whose eyes aren't on the same basic plane as the other people's in the conversation. If that's the case, it's probably nothing you're doing- it's just that the speaker gets engaged in what they're saying and is inadvertently slightly disinclined to tip their head towards you.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 7:50 AM on January 28, 2013

I'm a little bit late to this thread, but I have a slightly different angle on this exact phenomenon that I thought I would share, regarding eye contact in a group conversation.

When I find myself in a conversation where Person A seems to be talking more directly to me (specifically, making way more eye contact with me than with Person C), but where it's otherwise a perfectly equal conversation, I actually throw their gaze: I will pick a natural moment to turn to Person C (while Person A is still talking) and look almost exclusively at them for a few minutes, inviting them into the conversation. This forces the monogazing Person A to do the same, because it's weird to be making eye contact with someone who's not looking back!

Interestingly, this almost always works, and I've noted that if Person C was seeming to fade out of the conversation, this usually loops them back in and ups their contribution. While I do feel a little manipulative doing this, I also think it's in the service of inclusion and good conversational flow.
posted by petit hiboux at 11:32 AM on February 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think there can be a few things at work, including power differentials and extroverted personalities. I find myself in this situation most frequently where it's my husband and I (a woman) talking with a man, say a mechanic or sales clerk or in some situation where my husband and I are asking questions together but only my husband gets the eye contact. That's just pure sexism, in my opinion. This even happens where I am the primary question asker and where I am the one needing the answers. My husband will sometimes recognize this and physically remove himself or defer to me. There's another situation where I'm hanging out with his dudely sports buddies and they all kind of shut me out. I even like a lot of these guys quite a bit but in those situations, I just shrug it off and go have coffee.

In other situations, I think the person who is the most gregarious and outgoing (and/or most attractive) gets the most attention. I am probably 60/40 on whether I'll be the most outgoing in a triad. Sometimes I am but more often than not, I hang back, do more listening and interject occasionally. I won't comment on whether I'm the most attractive. Heh. It's all relative, no? Anyway, if I'm not the shining person in the triad, I'm not going to get the most attention.

Lastly, I work out of my home and I have to consciously switch to "interface mode" when I'm out among the people. I sort of forget to make eye contact when I've been working on my own for long periods of time and I think if you don't make casual and pointed eye contact in a conversation, then it makes your partner unconsciously uncomfortable and they will avoid your eyes as well. We are strange social creatures, indeed.

And if I find myself in this same situation with the exact same people, I stop hanging out with them. That's always an option.
posted by amanda at 11:05 AM on February 5, 2013

Late to the conversation but this caught my eye (no pun intended).
So one of my greatest pet peeves is people not looking at me when they talk. It used to drive me CRAZY when I dated a musician and people would come up and talk with us, if I started to engage in conversation they would reply by looking at him or looking down.
I had a friend observe and we kind of came up with the theory... people don't realize they're doing it, but it's an intimidation thing. Direct eye contact is a very confrontational action. Latching onto something comforting (like the person you see on stage like the guy I was dating, or maybe a closer friend) is what a lot of people do.
Learning that it wasn't ME was a great relief. I learned to start teaching people how to include me in the conversation. Catch their attention by saying their name, use hand gestures when talking, and sometimes even moving to the direction of their eyes as to passively point out to them what they're doing. Of course, smiling a lot and sometimes a little physical contact will help them be more comfortable around you.
Also, spend some time observing and listening to two people talk to get how they interact. Some people are loud and crass, others speak softly. By picking up on the 'way' they talk it shows you truly are interested in interacting with them or have something in common.

Anyways, don't beat yourself up over it. Most people seriously don't realize how rude they can be, you gotta teach them right :)
posted by hillabeans at 12:39 PM on February 6, 2013

« Older HMTL tables   |   11 y.o. girl loves Dr. Who and Hobbit -- friends... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.