We locked eyes.
It was all we could do, the deafening roar of thousands of tons of water plummeting over the edge every second.
I’d thought there’d been something contained in that brief glance, but couldn’t be sure.
She looked like she might be local, a Latina with olive skin and dark hair.
Perhaps I was just a curiosity, a strange-looking gringo.
Anyway, I was here to enjoy the waterfall, I thought.
Gazing out at La Garganta Del Diablo, the Devil’s Throat, I was suitably impressed.
A fine mist spread out from the falling water and back to the platform where we enjoyed the view of Iguazu Falls, one of the biggest waterfalls in the world, straddling the borders of Argentina and Brazil.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about that eye contact. Did it mean anything, or was I reading something into nothing?
I was desperately ill after all…
I’d come down with a heavy cold and struggled through an overnight journey from Brazil, barely able to think straight.
I chanced another quick look and sure enough, she met my gaze again.
To see how the story ended, check out number 9.
Anyway, back on topic.
Ok, for those of you who just want the juice, here it is.
1. They're anxious 2. They want to end the conversation 3. They're distracted 4. There are trust issues 5. They feel intimidated 6. One of you is talking too much 7. They're bored 8. They don't like you 9. There's no sexual chemistry 10. You're conversing on a complex topic 11. They're secretive
Still with me? Great…read on.
There are many reasons for avoiding eye contact.
But even though it’s a natural phenomenon, it can still make you feel like a bit of a lemon.
Especially when you’re trying your hardest to be a good little conversationalist or public speaker.
Perhaps such shifty looks are making you doubt your abilities as a smooth operator in social situations.
So for some reassurance, let’s take a look at the science.
First though, let’s put eye contact under the magnifying glass.
The evolution of eye contact
From a psychological standpoint, eye contact has been essential to our growth as a species.
From cooperating in groups, determining our status to identifying a potential mate, the ability to work well in groups was essential.
As Charles Darwin said,
“In the long history of humankind, those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
After all, social groups provided safety and access to vital resources for survival.
And before speech, all we had to rely on for group communication was body language, meaning that identifying subtle cues was essential.
Like a herd of gazelle watching each other for signs of threats, so too we developed our own little tricks, like eye contact.
This meant that our wise old ancestors had to be masters of subconscious messaging.
As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book, Blink, our ability to gain a fuller picture of our environment is largely thanks to our subconscious.
Perhaps that explains my attraction to the art of communication through improvised dance.
Anyways, let’s look at some of the reasons why your chums, acquaintances or work colleagues might avoid eye contact.
So if eye contact is so useful, why do some people persistently avoid it, and what can we infer about such behaviour?
Why would someone be avoiding eye contact?
Firstly, it may well not be you. Often one of the reasons for someone avoiding eye contact is that they themselves feel anxious and uncomfortable in social interactions.
Such discomfort, through increased self-consciousness, may be magnified by eye contact.
It’s common to think that we’re doing something wrong, but however good we are playing word tennis, some people just haven’t developed the same level of social comfort around others.
Maybe a lack of self-esteem makes them want to hide, especially when they feel under the spotlight in a social situation. By looking away when in a conversation, they may be subconsciously looking for an escape.
2. They might erm…actually, want to escape
Despite what I just said, sometimes people are genuinely looking to extricate themselves from a social encounter.
The reason someone might be avoiding eye contact is to display a certain level of disengagement so the conversation comes to a natural conclusion and they can say their goodbyes.
And before you feel like a complete reject, there may be a perfectly legitimate explanation…
Their sideways glances might be a signal that they’re late for an appointment or simply have somewhere else to be.
3. Easily distracted
In contrast, I’ve conversed with plenty of folks who simply aren’t very present.
Rather than being an active participant in the conversation, they’re like a golden retriever, distracted by every small stimulus going.
You can tell they want to chat but they just can’t help being diverted by the next distraction.
These types of exchanges can be pretty frustrating as you know that most of what you’re saying isn’t hitting home.
When they next look away, drop in a completely random statement just to gauge their level of attention.
4. They’re untrustworthy scoundrels
Have you ever told a tiny little white lie? Yeah, me neither.
For those that do though (tut tut), I imagine it would be pretty difficult to maintain eye contact with people who aren’t in the know.
Little signals like avoiding eye contact might well be a warning of potential trust issues.
Psychologists have shown that on a subconscious level when we see someone’s pupils dilate during eye contact, we’re more likely to trust them, while constriction, signalling fear and threat, has the opposite effect.
5. They feel intimidated
A feeling of intimidation may be another reason someone’s avoiding eye contact.
If you’re an extrovert, speak loudly or display dominant body language, it may cause someone to look away.
Back in our cavemen days, the threat of violence may have improved access to sustenance and mating possibilities.
And the truth is, these dominant behaviours can still exert a powerful effect on our brain’s primitive pathways.
Just take a look at the animal kingdom; when a dog is submissive, they lower their eyes and look away.
If you regularly experience a lack of conversational engagement, it might be a good indication to re-evaluate your behaviour to ensure you’re not too overbearing.
6. You talk too much
Socialising should be a two-way street, a coming together of people for an exchange of ideas.
If you’re constantly talking over your partner and not allowing them to express themselves, it can easily magnify a lack of engagement and create those sideways glances.
No-one likes to be talked at.
Allow others to contribute to the dialogue and assess its impact on the average duration of eye contact.
7. They’re bored!
I’m sorry to break this to you amigo, but you might just be, well, a little boring.
This is where the topic of conversation comes into play.
Are you talking too much about yourself, or engaging in some one-upmanship?
If you don’t allow room for a bilateral exchange, someone might instantly think you’re boring.
Communicating effectively is a real skill, and even if you’re not one to be cracking witty jokes or recounting funny anecdotes, you can still be socially adept.
As a first step, try listening intently and asking more questions to get the conversation flowing.
8. They don’t like you
Ok, so while we’d all like to think of ourselves as complete legends, unfortunately, it’s not a universal sentiment.
There will invariably be some people/maniacs out there who you don’t vibe with.
Perhaps they don’t appreciate your improvised dancing or violent dislike of olives.
Who knows…could this be one of the reasons they’re avoiding eye contact?
Are they secretly thinking of a mountain of olives?!
9. They dislike you in a sexy way
Maybe you’ve Brylcreemed your quiff just right and are wearing your soft touch button-down shirt.
They’ve responded fantastically to your hilarious Tinder jokes and you’ve taken them to your favourite (hidden) wine bar.
But, they just won’t meet your gaze. What’s wrong?
Eye contact and especially pupil dilation can be a good indicator of arousal and potential mating behaviour.
In other words, they’re probably not picking up what you’re putting down and romantically, don’t want to take it any further.
[It turns out, from my meeting with the mystery girl earlier, that it’s true what they say about eye contact! After fast becoming friends, we eventually became a couple, I ended up living abroad and we motorbiked the length of South America together. A story for another time!]
10. Conversing on a complex topic
Eye contact has been shown to take up a lot of brainpower.
So much so that when Japanese scientists looked at its effects, they discovered that participants performed far worse on a verb generation test.
Indeed, it’s been shown that teaching children to break eye contact in order to think through a topic more clearly can be beneficial
So, if you’re talking about a tough subject, don’t be surprised if someone averts their gaze to free up more mind power before their splendid retort.
It’s a technique we could all use.
11. They’re secretive
Eye contact can often betray our innermost thoughts and feelings.
For example, research shows that we consider emotional displays more intense when accompanied by eye contact.
So if you’ve left your underpants on the floor by the washing basket, perhaps your partner is really doing you a favour…
By avoiding eye contact, he’s really just trying to shield you from his darkest negative emotions.
When someone can’t look you in the face
If you question why someone might be avoiding eye contact, the above guide could provide a handy clue.
A one-off experience is natural and the odd bad egg is to be expected. Some people simply need lessons in how not to be awkward.
However, if you find a repeated lack of engagement in your conversations, it may provide a good impetus for self-reflection.
Are there any ways you can improve your communication style to foster more participation in your daily interactions?
It can be hard to tell subjectively whether your attempts to improve in the social arena are effective.
However, the beauty of assessing your ability to initiate eye can be a good objective measure as you begin to track your successful exchanges.
Although maintaining more eye contact is generally quite useful, research shows that the optimum length of eye contact is just over three seconds.
Too far beyond this, you have the psychopath zone, for those who get a bit well, stary.
So, don’t be a psychopath.
Bonus: If you want to sharpen your eye contact skills, check out this video for some intense staring contests 🙂