The Eyes Don’t Always Have It

“Eye contact is a powerful force.” John Millen says this in Why eye contact matters so much.

Millen has a point. He explains the importance of making eye contact (for American culture) in presentations and face-to-face meetings. He also provides tips for improving eye contact skills, such as maintaining eye contact until you finish making your point.

Millen does caution against assuming all cultures value eye contact the same way. Eye contact in China is construed as anger, for example.

If I could sit down and talk about this article with Millen, these are the other considerations I would encourage him to make, however.

Other skills besides eye contact should factor heavily in hiring/promotions

Discussing people on the autism spectrum is a bit fraught, because every person with autism experiences life from a very individual perspective. However, eye contact is frequently an area where they may behave differently than neurotypical people. One study said, “first-hand reports suggest that simply avoiding to attend to the eyes of others is one common strategy [to avoid discomfort].”

Terra Vance of The Aspergian compiled comments from several people on the spectrum regarding their thoughts about not making eye contact. Here’s an example:

Because it’s as comfortable as pushing two polarised magnets together. – Shay from Portland, Ore.

Having difficulty making eye contact does not take away all of the other capabilities that make these people excellent workers.

In 2019, eye contact is potentially divisive

Watch the video of this 2015 traffic stop in Ohio:

John Felton, the Ohio motorist in the video, was driving to his mother’s house when he was pulled over by a police officer. Although the officer’s reason for pulling Felton over was that he did not apply his turn signal early enough, the officer went on to say his reason was really, “Because you made direct eye contact with me, and you held on to it while I was passing you.”

The CNN report says the two end up going to mediation rather than a hearing. I wonder how that turned out.

Besides Fenton’s situation, eye contact is often interpreted in different ways by different groups.

Writing for Facing History and Ourselves, Binna Kandola says a failure to make eye contact is a “micro-incivility” that makes a person “[feel] invisible and excludes them from the group.”

On the flip side (or at least a different angle), the National Review contends, contrary to Oxford University’s opinion, that eye contact (or lack thereof) shouldn’t be viewed through the lens of racism. “Talking to someone who won’t look at you is an experience that everyone in the world has had, regardless of race, and arbitrarily assigning racial motivations to something so universal isn’t going to help anyone,” writes Katherine Timpf.

Why putting too much emphasis on eye contact matters

Millen’s points were valid and useful. Like I said, the conversation needs to be extended to acknowledge the neurological factors that influence why we do or do not make eye contact, as well as the differences in how people of various races interpret eye contact expectations, especially in the US.

I am married to someone who doesn’t make eye contact especially well (yet has been successful professionally). My son wasn’t big on it as a kid; the expectations of educators and other adults that he do so seemed to place an undue burden on him. As a faceblind person, I have had my share of being misunderstood as aloof or forgetful because I failed to immediately recognize someone who had every reason (based on our past history) to think I would.

We understand more now about human behavior and the way the brain functions than we ever did before. We should use that understanding to bring more people into the fold of our organizations rather than close our eyes to their potential.

Beyond eye contact

4 thoughts on “The Eyes Don’t Always Have It

  1. Oh, . . . this is very interesting!
    So much depends on your culture. As a kid growing up overseas, eye contact with adults was plain rudeness. Returning to the States as a preteen I quickly learned lack of eye contact was perceived as rudeness.
    Then of course there’s the U.S. military where a common Drill Sergeant saying is, ‘Don’t eyeball me, soldier!’

    Yes, I feel we put too much emphasis on eye contact and also, dont ask the questions. Like, ‘Is something wrong? You seem to be uncomfortable looking at me?’, giving the other person the opportunity to explain if it’s their culture, or they feel cornered somehow, or whatever the case may be.

    Good article! Thanks for this!

    • All good and valid points, Dana. I haven’t spent too much time out of the US, but I am sure there are so many variations abroad.

  2. Great article. There are so many rules concerning eye contact and I don’t think anyone has the right answer. I was always told to look someone in the ye when speaking to them.

    • That’s the thing – we don’t have the answers. Hopefully as time goes by we will all be a bit more understanding of each other. Thank you *so* much for chiming in. <3

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