Some are brown, some are black; some are blue, and some are green. Some are round, some are hooded; some are almond, and some are wide. Everyone's eyes are different, be that in colour or shape. They're part of our physical features and add to our individuality. However, they are so much more than just that. They not only allow us to see and observe what's around us but eye contact can help us express our emotions and feelings.
They are a means of communicating with others, but also ourselves. This article will aim to explore this very aspect and help us understand how such communication takes place.
Eye Contact Meaning
Eye contact is fairly straight forwards in meaning, and it can provide many purposes. We can define it as:
Eye contact is the process of looking into someone else's eyes, usually to communicate with another person.
When engaging in conversation, your words may say one thing about how you are feeling, however, your eyes can communicate something entirely different.
Eye Contact Communication
Have you ever thought that eye contact could be a vital skill in communication? It is the means by which we are able to show someone that we are interested in what they are saying and are therefore paying attention. Alternatively, it can also reveal signs of disinterest or discomfort. Alongside displaying these basic moods, eye contact can also express compassion, empathy and support.
In addition to emotion, research has shown that eye contact helps you to remember what the other person was talking about.
Fullwood and Doherty-Sneddon (2006) conducted a study to understand what the effect would be if individuals were to gaze into the camera when taking part in a video call, which, for the viewer, would result in them feeling like the video presenter is looking into their eyes.
They found that gazing directly for just 30% of the entire conversation had a significant impact on their memory of the conversation¹.
Imagine a scenario in which someone is telling you a story which is full of ups and downs and twists and turns. How would you react? You would use verbal cues like gasping to express shock, but in addition to that, your eyes would tend to express the same emotion; your eyes would widen and your pupils would dilate.
Additionally, eye contact during a conversation shows that you are paying attention to what is being said. This attention helps you respond appropriately to the topic being talked about, and this is what we call regulating the flow of conversation; eye contact goes back and forth between individuals, the same way the exchange of words takes place, which contributes to a meaningful discussion.
Think of it this way - if someone was talking about something that was disturbing or uncomfortable to hear, and your eyes were responding with cues suggesting that you are happy - this wouldn't really regulate the flow of conversation, would it?
Moreover, eye contact allows us to express our emotions. If someone is happy, sad, surprised or aroused, one look into their eyes and they can tell us a lot about their emotions.
Keeping an eye out for these cues and what they could possibly mean allows us to improve our empathy and communication skills towards another individual.
Narrow eyes during conversation can sometimes indicate anger or discomfort. It shows that the individual is not comfortable with the conversation. Further, looking away could also signal the same feeling. Looking away can also indicate other emotions such as embarrassment or shyness, so it is not black and white.
Happiness can be conveyed by arched eyebrows and a smile, or even the size of the pupils. Dilated pupils often indicate arousal in some form, and are a cue for attraction.
When focusing on something, such as the facts of the conversation or an image being shown to the individual during a conversation, pupils tend to constrict.
Normally, feelings of fear are indicated with wide-open eyes, with the mouth forming the shape of the letter 'O'. In cases of fright and excitement, the natural bodily response is to produce adrenaline, which often leads to the dilation of pupils.
The dilation of one's eyes is a complex concept, as it can often mean a variety of different things ranging from fear to excitement to arousal and attraction! This is why it's important to notice these cues with respect to the conversation at hand, and make assumptions accordingly.
There may be times when you have been interested in someone romantically. Eye contact can signal attraction.
Whether you're just talking or making an attempt to flirt with your romantic interest, eye contact is key - not only does it show attentiveness, but is also a means of breeding intimacy and attraction.
Studies have found that maintaining eye prolonged eye contact, i.e., for at least two minutes, results in the production of a chemical called phenylethylamine (PEA); this chemical is associated with falling in love. Not only that, but this chemical further releases dopamine, referred to as the pleasure hormone, and norepinephrine, referred to as the fight or flight hormone - both of these are associated with feelings of love and excitement.2
Eye contact still seems to be a relatively broad term, and just like with anything else, there are different types. Let's look at the next section to get a better understanding of what these are.
Types of Eye Contact
Learning what different types of eye contact mean can help you develop in not just your personal life, but your professional one as well.
Imagine having a conversation with someone who is consistently looking at their phone or is paying more attention to their surroundings rather than to you. Lack of attention could most definitely cause you to feel some negative emotions, maybe as though you are not being respected, but it is important to also try and understand the meaning of these actions. A lack of eye contact may show disinterest.
Having said that, it could also mean that the individual might be too distracted to focus on the conversation at hand.
Glancing is mainly on two types: conscious and unconscious. A conscious glance shows that someone has recognised your presence in the room, and solidifies that they may even come up and try to strike some form of a conversation with you. On the other hand, an unconscious glance is normally an accident, and instead of occurring due to a fresh face entering a room or a loud noise, it tends to occur when someone is looking around and observing their surroundings or looking for something specific.
In either of these situations, one is not specifically trying to express or hide an emotion per se, which is why they don't really signify anything important - a glance is oftentimes just a glance, nothing more and nothing less.
Someone that is consistently looking at you shows that they are making an effort to observe you, your actions and your behaviours. They may also observe things like your tone of voice, whom you are speaking to, and your overall body language (if they are thinking of coming up to you and striking a conversation).
Normally, this would suggest that a person displaying such kind of eye contact has an interest in you. Research has shown that repeated and extended eye contact may be linked to attraction.
The key difference between glancing and repeated eye contact is that, as the name suggests, this normally occurs more than once, and is intentional.
Prolonged Eye Contact and Smiling
Prolonged eye contact combined with smiling is a positive kind of eye contact, which shows interest in the conversation. It is used when you are speaking with loved ones, friends and coworkers, and shows that you are paying attention to the conversation at hand, and vice versa. In Western cultures, prolonged eye contact often infers honesty and attentiveness, however, in other places such as Eastern cultures, prolonged eye contact is seen as rude.
Importance of Eye Contact
Humans have developed a complex communication system. Our eyes have visible whites, with dark coloured irises. Does this colour differentiation make a difference? Well, this is exactly what allows us to focus on the eyes when engaging in conversation.
Animals like apes and chimpanzees often relied on the motion of the head to determine what the other is focusing on because direct contact in their world almost always means aggression. Humans, on the other hand, are able to use and understand eye contact as a means of non-verbal communication. According to Kobayashi (1997), this evolutionary difference allows us to identify which direction someone's eyes are looking toward, regardless of the position of their head.
Further, in earlier days, it was this very understanding of eye contact that helped humans to make plans and coordinate activities before verbal communication came into play.3
Adults are not the only ones that rely on eye contact as a form of communication - babies do as well. Farroni et al. (2002) found that babies prefer eye contact with someone looking back at them directly, rather than those who are looking elsewhere and/or are distracted. Further, he also found that babies as young as four months are able to follow an individual's eyes, even if their head stays stationary.4
Eye Contact - Key takeaways