Does more-than-fleeting eye contact give you the creeps? Or do people who avoid eye contact creep you out even more?
Being able to make eye contact during social or professional conversations is an important skill. It affects how others see you both in personal and work-related relationships. It makes us feel understood and heard by the person we’re talking to.
According to researchers, there are numerous rewards for maintaining eye contact during a conversation. One benefit is that people will likely recall your face and remember what you said after the conversation is over.
Eye contact makes others perceive you as honest, intelligent, and confident. People can also more easily read your other non-verbal cues, as well.
So what does it mean if someone (perhaps you?) tends to avoid eye contact in the midst of a conversation?
Let’s explore a few of the reasons that people struggle with initiating or maintaining eye contact. So whether you’re the one who struggles with looking people in the eye or someone who wonders what the deal is, I got you covered.
1) Low self-esteem/shyness
The most common reason that people have trouble with eye contact is low self-esteem.
When you feel inferior to, or ‘less than’, others you can wish you were ‘invisible’ to those around you. You feel like your dork phasers are set on high and that every single person in the supermarket watched you trip on thin air.
This nerve-wracking phenomenon is called the aptly named ‘spotlight effect,’ because you feel like other people notice every tiny detail of what you do or say, especially if it’s totally cringe. The less visible you are to others, the safer you feel.
When you’re looking people straight in the eye, you may feel overexposed. You’re afraid they’re going to realize you’re useless (even though you aren’t.)
Low self-esteem is a trickster. It makes you feel unworthy and therefore you’re easily intimidated. Insecure people lack assertiveness so they usually find eye contact too overwhelming.
2) Social anxiety disorder
Obviously, people with social anxiety have a tough time in social situations. Just like folks with low self-esteem, people with social anxiety have a distorted idea of both themselves and others. They think that no matter what they do, other people will judge them for it and probably reject them to boot.
Social anxiety is often associated with a lack of trust, self-esteem issues, and fear of rejection. All these issues make interaction with others challenging and highly uncomfortable.
People with social anxiety disorder (SAD) describe eye contact as uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing. This is likely due to their genetic makeup. If you suffer from SAD, the amygdala, which is the area of your brain that warns you of potential danger, can be triggered simply by making eye contact.
Social anxiety is a curious combination of being on guard all the time and avoiding social stimuli. So, if you’re at a party, you’re probably on the lookout for people judging you, while trying to dodge those kinds of situations in the first place.
The struggle is real, people.
When a socially anxious person is thrust into a social situation, they tend to dwell on their negative feelings instead of engaging in the conversation.
So, they are too fearful to maintain eye contact and too focused on listening to their inner critic.
Autism is not an ‘insecurity’ per se, but it’s the reason many people struggle with eye contact. In fact, atypical eye contact is a strong indication that one could be on the autism spectrum.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects your ability to utilize and decipher nonverbal communication. Problems making eye contact are one of the earliest signs of the disorder.
People with autism have brains that are particularly sensitive to faces, especially head-on. So, if you have autism, eye contact might feel overwhelming and invasive..
Autistic individuals prefer faces with an averted gaze. So, it appears that avoiding eye contact is an involuntary response to the facial stimuli they have difficulty processing.
If you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you may find it hard to maintain eye contact if you struggle to focus during conversation.
I have ADHD, and I can verify the veracity of this statement. I’m not shy, I’m not shady, I’m just overwhelmed and trying to process what you’re saying.
Sometimes that’s easier to do while looking at the ground so I can concentrate and not ask you to repeat yourself a zillion times, which fills me with anxiety just thinking about it.
So, at least from the perspective of this ADHDer, it seems trying not to be rude makes me appear rude.
If you’ve experienced physical abuse or other trauma, it could prove difficult for you to make direct eye contact with someone. Trauma can literally alter how your brain functions, so it’s more likely that you’ll perceive ordinary eye contact as a threat.
Lack of eye contact often denotes the feeling of being exposed. This could be because you’re socially anxious, or this could be because you’re trying to pull the wool over someone’s eyes.
This is a no-judgment zone, friends. Sometimes you have things you don’t want exposed. It doesn’t necessarily involve lying, you could be hiding your true feelings about the person you’re conversing with.
So, even though avoiding eye contact is commonly linked with deceptiveness, body language experts say that there’s no conclusive evidence to support this link.
But the opposite is known to be true. Liars will usually overcompensate by maintaining eye contact for too long to ward off suspicion.
But, studies or not, most people equate direct eye contact with sincerity and honesty, and an averted gaze with dishonesty and other shenanigans.
On the other, other hand, averting one’s eyes can also signify physical attraction. If someone likes you but wants to hide it, they will unconsciously hide their eyes so that they don’t give away their true feelings for you.
You’ve probably done this yourself at some point. Be honest!
And yes, this is confusing. How do you interpret the lack of eye contact since it can mean so many different things? Do they have a crush on you or are you making them uncomfortable and boring them to tears?
OK, if someone’s attracted to you, the person will sneak a peak at you here and there. If you’re paying attention, you’ll find these stolen glances betray their interest.
But if they don’t like you or what you’re saying, they will hardly look at you at all. And if they do, their eyes will give away their indifference.
One of the most common reasons people will avoid eye contact is that they’re not engaged in the conversation, so their mind wanders.
My mind tends to not just wander, but take an around-the-world cruise.
Maybe the topic of conversation doesn’t really interest them. Maybe you are talking too much about yourself and they’ve mentally checked out.
Or perhaps they’re having issues of their own and would rather not be socializing right now.
If you’re trying to improve your eye contact skills, be aware of your patterns. Once you’ve done that, you can take steps toward changing your behavior.
It won’t happen overnight, of course. It’s a social skill that requires practice for a lot of people. If you find yourself struggling, it’s a good idea to remind yourself that positive change takes time.
Here’s looking at you, kid!