Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Hey! You! Why won't you look me in the eye? Are you an introvert or something?

If you ever meet me face-to-face, odds are I’ll not look you in the eyes all the time as we chat.

That may or may not be an issue with you.

For a lot of folks, however, they will immediately consider me with suspicion and assume I have something to hide.

After all, a person who cannot look another person in the eye must be up to no good. Right?

Or an alien.

Or they may just be an introvert. Which, by the way, is not the same thing as being an alien. Or up to no good.

How to influence friends and win people over

Just about any book you pick up that has anything to do with how to successfully connect with people or do well in sales or business or job interviews will have at least a chapter or two on the utter importance of making eye contact.

Not making eye contact, the authors will insist, is the kiss of death! Mmwah!

In fact, according to the website, The Art of Manliness, making eye contact is, naturally, associated with all sorts of good and positive characteristics. A lot of eye contact with everyone all the time is seen as a very good thing.

It’s claimed that when you look another in the eyes you are thought to be …
… more dominant and powerful
… more warm and personable
… more attractive and likeable
… more qualified, skilled, competent, and valuable
… more trustworthy, honest, and sincere
… more confident and emotionally stable.
Sometimes less is more

All those “mores” are pretty desirable and I’m sure Dale Carnegie would approve. But I’m not a huge fan of Dale who appeals most strongly to extroverts.

For introverts, making a lot of eye contact is not comfortable or helpful. The good news is that it’s okay to be this way!

Please understand, a lack of heavy eye contact does not automatically equate to a person being wimpy, powerless, cold, impersonal, unattractive, not likeable, incompetent, worthless, insincere, unstable, or any of those other list-opposite adjectives.

If that’s how you are viewing someone, then you’re merely filtering them through your own biases. You’re not seeing them clearly.

Introverts are wired differently. We’re not sleazy, shiftless liars trying to hide something behind shifty eyes. Making a lot of eye contact can be distracting and exhausting.

There’s more to introverts than meets your eye

So, when an introvert looks down or up or to the side, what’s really going on?

We’re just trying to focus better on the conversation!

The nervous system of an introvert tends to be more sensitive to stimulation. A lot of sound, movement, light, and noise – like what you’d find at a party, in a meeting, or during a discussion – provides a lot of stimulation to sort through and can be overwhelming.

A little distraction that may slightly annoy an extrovert can, at times, be cognitively disabling to an introvert.

Even one on one, trying to maintain eye contact while focusing on the conversation is taxing for introverts.

Looking away during a conversation is a way to reduce distraction, allowing the introvert to concentrate on hearing and participating appropriately in the conversation.

Looking away is not about ignoring you, but rather, is a form of paying better attention.

Cultural sensitivities and genuine rudeness

There are reasons when not making eye contact is the correct behavior:
  • In some cultures, particularly Asian, direct eye contact is considered rude and disrespectful.
  • Maintaining eye contact with the opposite sex can be viewed as unwanted flirtation.
  • Staring intently at someone can be taken as a sign of hostility or aggression.
  • Never breaking eye contact can come across as creepy.
Yet a quick search on the Internet will turn up plenty of articles that insist the only way to go is to make eye contact. This represents the extrovert bias that exists in our culture.

Remember, 50% of the population consists of introverts.

On the flip side, if you're in a meeting, frequently looking at your phone, laptop, or watch is simply rude.

Maybe it’s just because your face is blurry

In addition to mental focus, looking away for any of us could simply be a matter of visual focus.

I’m near-sighted meaning that, without my glasses, things closer are clearer than things far away. But not if those things are too close!

As I’ve aged and moved to progressive lenses getting people in focus can be challenging. If someone approaches me to talk, I’ll step back to try to see then more clearly.

If the person insists on staying close, and probably violating my personal space, I’ll look past them or away simply because it’s uncomfortable trying to focus on their face when it’s not possible.

You can’t judge a book by its cover, or a person by their looking away

The bottom-line is this: Don’t read too much into whether or not someone does or doesn’t look you in the eye.

Even body-language experts will caution that, while a person folding their arms can indicate they are a closed person, it can also indicate nothing other than that’s a more comfortable position for them.

Reading a person’s body language or expressions is not a rigid, precise science. Context is essential.

Remember the Seinfeld episode where George was suspected of being a thief merely because he was sweating following a work out and then after eating spicy food?

And we all know the feeling of seeing a police car in our rear view mirror.

As an introvert, I will look you in the eye from time to time. I understand that this is the socially acceptable way to go. But I won’t always maintain deep eye contact. And that has nothing to do with me being shifty or disinterested. It’s all about the way we introverts are wired.

Or, just maybe, I really am an alien, and when I look away it’s so I can blink my lizard eyes without you seeing. You never know. <blink>

UPDATE: Recent research says eye contact may not be all it's cracked up to be! Click here to read more.
Excerpt from “The Jimmy,” episode 19 from season 6 of Seinfeld:

Have you, as an introvert, had issues related to not making "enough" eye contact with others? Have you experienced any other anti-introvert bias? As an extrovert, do you understand that introverts are wired differently than you and, therefore, behave differently? As an extrovert, are you tolerant or impatient with introverts?

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