definition of eye contact

an original definition by J. E. Brown

eye contact
  1. That thing that (supposedly) nobody is doing right, and yet no one knows how to explain it to newbies or specify the rules of conduct. It’s time to fix that. This article is a compendium of the best and widest research on the subject. {Source: “Definition of eye contact” by J. E. Brown.}

Related Concepts: {Read this comp1ete article at .}
  • avoidance; receptiveness; regulation of interpersonal distance

Excerpts from my book (in progress)

Grocery Shopping in the Twilight Zone.

Picture if you will: You walk into your usual grocery store for a loaf of bread. It’s a day like any other, at the same store you visit every week. But soon you notice that something is different, something has changed: There’s friendliness in the air! Someone in the bakery says “Hello” as you walk past. Someone stocking a shelf in Canned Goods says “How’s it going” as you pass by. And you say to yourself, “This is unusual.... This is nice!” You say “Gee! Maybe they like my shirt! Or maybe it’s my new haircut!” {You’re reading “Definition of eye contact” by J. E. Brown.}

But within 10 more minutes you figure out what’s going on: These employees who are speaking to you aren’t even looking at you. It’s as though the store manager told them all to be “friendly” today — but didn’t tell them how. And you begin to realize that all the repetitions of “Hello” and “How’s it going” are flat, and hollow, and without the customary punctuation marks of enthusiasm at the end. There’s no inquisitiveness when they ask how you are; there’s no excitement in the hello. And there’s no eye contact: When the stock boy mumbled his greeting at you, he was looking at his barcode reader, and not even facing in your direction. At the morning meeting, when the manager told the staff to “be friendly”, he or she clearly had no idea how phony these greetings would sound. {Read this comp1ete article at .}

— J. E. Brown

Q & A.

  1. What about people who stare? Is something wrong with them??
  1. I once had a teacher who stared. Some of us students were bothered. I was. But you get used to it!
    Temporary annoyance is not a problem; it’s an opportunity for you to expand your horizons and learn about others. It’s an opportunity for you to learn what makes you turn judgmental. {You’re reading “Definition of eye contact” by J. E. Brown.}

— J. E. Brown

During the filming of the 1961 Western The Misfits, director John Huston complained that while on the job, Marilyn Monroe wouldn’t interact with him, wouldn’t make eye contact, would interact only with her acting coach.

In the 2001 film Shallow Hal, Gwyneth Paltrow played a 300-pound woman. To look the part, Paltrow had to wear full-body prosthetic makeup — basically, a fat suit. Just to see how people would react, she went out in public in this costume. Later she spoke about the reactions she got: “Nobody would make eye contact with me. It was really disturbing. And it was really sad.”
— story from Entertainment Tonight, 16 May 2001.

Writer Sharon Moshavi reports that in Japan, strangers avoid looking at you:

It just makes me feel lonely in the middle of a crowd.... I never realized that having total strangers acknowledge my presence was important to my self-esteem.

— Sharon Moshavi , a writer living in Tokyo, “Eye Contact” (audio, 3 minutes), NPR, 26 Feb 2002

You aren’t making the most of your good looks unless you look people in the eye. That’s the finding of researchers led by Knut Kampe at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College, London. Their research finds that a part of your brain that predicts rewards lights up whenever an attractive person looks you in the eye — but not when that same person is looking away or avoiding your glances. Keep in mind, this research was done in England, so the findings may not apply to other cultures with differing customs for eye contact. Results appeared in the journal Nature, 11 Oct 2001.

— J. E. Brown

Studies indicate that individuals of higher status maintain better eye contact than those of lower status.

— Abne Eisenberg, “Doctor-Patient Eye Contact”, downloaded 2002 & 2014

In the States, we teach our children to make good eye contact, but in other cultures, direct eye contact is considered hostile. Women have to be particularly careful that their eye contact is not misinterpreted as flirtatious. A woman for example, would not extend her hand first in greeting in many countries. She must wait for the other person to shake hands.

— Blanche Evans, “The Ugly Realtor

The physics department at the Technical University of Munich once gave this advice to tutors from other countries:

Another problem is cultural differences that cause unnecessary trouble. German students expect, for example, that you look at them, even if that would be discourteous in your culture.

— Advice to “Tutoren aus anderen Ländern”, downloaded Oct 2002 & Sep 2015, roughly translated by Google Translate, with a few corrections by yours truly

Btw the German keywords are “Augenkontakt” und “Blickkontakt”.

From the chapter on How to be Rude:

Nonstandard Bigotries: How to be an A-Hole Boss and Attract the Attention of an Angry Government Agency.

Times have changed. It’s no longer legal to refuse to hire women and minorities. But we can still satisfy the urge to discriminate. There are plenty of unrecognized, unprotected groups just waiting to be screwed. Shy people. Short people. People with asymmetric faces. People who don’t make “appropriate” eye contact. People who don’t have a “professional” handshake. Anyone who has no white friends, off the job. Anyone who talks with an accent. In short, anyone who (as the modern saying goes) “doesn’t fit in with the culture of this workplace”. {You’re reading “Definition of eye contact” by J. E. Brown.}

(Inspired by actual managers, by ongoing racism, and by the 2015 news story of an African-American who was actually reprimanded for not socializing with her white colleagues.)

— J. E. Brown

Have you noticed that people don’t just avoid your eyes; they also don’t laugh at your jokes, and they pretend they can’t hear you when you speak. In other words, they’re avoiding eye contact, conversational contact, and humor contact. They won’t accept food from you either. Like they’re worried that all of those are intended to poison or deceive them. Humor might be the most important one, for what it reveals: As humor theorists like to say, sharing and celebrating another person’s jokes by laughing is a way of displaying a bond with that person, a way of displaying shared group membership. Refusing to laugh is like saying “He’s not one of us.” {You’re reading “Definition of eye contact” by J. E. Brown.}

I believe these behaviors all occur together. They’re unreceptiveness indicators.

— J. E. Brown

A blogger in Russia writes:

The homeless people here never refuse food, while in America I have seen homeless people refuse food when they hear it comes from a Christian organization.


According to Dr. Steve Duck, a professor who writes graduate textbooks for relationship psychology courses (and yes, relationships are a serious research topic now), eye contact has a syntax: Just like other aspects of communication, there is a grammar for using eye contact effectively. Think of eye contact as a kind of punctuation mark. Professor Duck says:

we should look at people when we are nearing the end of what we want to say, but look away when we have not finished and do not want to be interrupted. In this case, the ‘eye contact’ indicates our willingness to let the other person talk. Also, a competent communicator establishes eye contact when he or she is saying something especially important. In short, eye movements have a role to play in the control, emphasis and regulation of conversation….

— Steve Duck, Understanding Relationships, pp. 78-79

Time for a plug or two: Steve Duck writes the best books in his field; if you want to get really good at interpersonal relationships, then his book Understanding Relationships is one of the few books I recommend, wholeheartedly, and without any reservation. There’s a newer edition called Human Relationships.
Like all textbooks, Duck’s books may be pricey if purchased new, but believe me, this is education for your life, and you will use the knowledge you gain from this book, perhaps more than some of the other textbooks you’ve purchased.

Now the bad news: The rules for eye contact are geographical: they depend on what country you’re in, even what region.

Eye Contact. The French “really look at you,” says Hall. “Arabs look each other in the eye when talking with an intensity that makes most Americans highly uncomfortable.” Americans are taught not to stare, but “proper English listening behavior includes immobilization of the eyes.” Americans nod their heads and grunt to indicate understanding and agreement; the English blink their eyes.

Nonverbal Communication. To Chicanos, staring at someone or failing to shake hands may be interpreted not just as bad manners but as violations of personal honor and “attempts to demean an individual.”

— Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Among Friends: Who We Like, Why We Like Them, and What We Do with Them, p. 164

In the above snippet, Pogrebin is quoting other sources, but her book is one of my favorite books on relationships and I really want to push it at you.
If you’ve ever worried about your friendships or wondered if your friendships were stable or on the decline, you are not alone, for as this book will tell you, worrying about friendships is the real national pastime, one of the great unspoken worries on everybody’s mind.
The author’s approach is more literary than scientific, but what science loses by focusing on averages, this book gains by focusing on individual stories. The facts and figures she quotes will surprise and amaze you.
When you get to Amazon, please click the link that tells Amazon you’d like to read this book on Kindle.

Hall, quoted above, is anthropologist Edward T. Hall in The Hidden Dimension (1990). Longer quote here.

Oculesics is the study of eye movement and position. … Americans acknowledge each other’s presence by making brief eye contact…. Too much eye contact makes Americans feel uncomfortable…. Navajo Indians attribute eye contact as a severe indication of disapproval and, therefore, individuals do not look directly at each other.

— Eileen N. Ariza, Fundamentals of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages in K-12 Mainstream Classrooms, p. 53

→ Widening of the eyes during conversation has differing meanings worldwide; see Ariza p. 53 for a short table of meanings.

→ Edward T. Hall lists the differences in Arab and American oculesic styles here.

— J. E. Brown

Correct eye contact in traffic could save your life. Travel publisher Lonely Planet says this rule applies in New York City, but I think it may apply wherever other people can’t hear you:

If you look for too long and make eye contact with a driver, you surrender your implied right of way: now the driver knows you see them and, if you have any brains, you won’t step in front of their moving vehicle.

— “How — and how not — to cross the street around the world (at

→ By the way, if you’re planning to travel abroad, eye contact seems to be a very popular topic at travel website Lonely Planet, especially for women traveling alone. Eye contact can be over-interpreted in *every* country. See examples at Google.

So eye contact has a grammar. It’s not surprising then, that there are eye-contact Nazis, just as there are grammar Nazis.
Please don’t be like them. Micromanagement of other people’s faces is, of course, rude. Telling people to “Smile” and telling people where to point their eyes are signs of a control-freak personality.

— J. E. Brown

Books on business management get me really worked up. Books on hiring (human resources) in particular are all about fads and little about science, more Machiavelli than psychology. … It is often alleged that HR people screen this way because they don’t understand the actual skills required by the job. So they judge applicants on irrelevancies like the firmness of the handshake and the quality of the eye contact. Just today I realized it’s all a list, and that list includes the spelling and grammar on the résumé – even though, interestingly, a survey found more than half of hiring managers say a writing sample is unimportant when hiring! HR is supposed to be hiring people based on their skills and abilities (I thought the law said they have to). Now I find that many HR people are snake-oil practitioners, more familiar with the latest pop-psychology about body language than the skill set relevant to their employers’ field. {You’re reading “Definition of eye contact” by J. E. Brown.}

I guess I’m not surprised: look at the astrology being used by Chinese HR departments.

— J. E. Brown

According to some people, gaydar is based on eye contact.
Personally, I think gaydar is based on wishful thinking.

— J. E. Brown

1st edition 04 Oct 2015

Notes & References

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