Have you ever noticed someone avoiding eye contact with you? Ever wondered what it means / says about you and them? In this article, I get down and dirty with what you need to know about eye contact avoidance whether you are doing it or someone else.
As I did my research it became clear that this isn’t a one size fits all issue. So, coming up with a concise way to describe it was a bit tough, but here is my best answer at providing the “short” answer.
So, what does it mean when someone avoids eye contact with you (or you avoid eye contact with them? Avoiding eye contact is an attempt to hide something like social awkwardness, interest, or attraction (maybe they like you). Often people avoid eye contact or exaggerate eye contact when lying. They are afraid of being exposed. Eye movement is driven emotionally and unconsciously. The eyes tell all.
This can leave you wondering what type of awkwardness it hides. The short answer to that is summarized below. While there is a plethora of scientific and psychological assessment information out there, I figured I’d spare you and discuss it in a more generalized aspect:
What does it mean when someone doesn’t make eye contact with you, and what does it hide?
- It can be due to a bigger psychological problem, a neurological condition. Think about autism, social anxieties, etc.
- It can be due to low self-esteem.
- In their mind (at least on a subconscious level they feel they are “better” than you. They feel socially superior, but they may be unaware of this. With that said, it can also be conscious. More on this in a bit.
- They are in a bad mood and are hiding anger or in a mode of avoidance.
- They are attracted to you (or you like or are attracted to someone else), and you are avoiding eye contact. Yeah, you are all that and a bag of chips.
- They feel exposed. If they feel they are caught by surprise, unprepared, shame can cause someone to avoid eye contact.
- They don’t like the way you look. Ouch!
- They are avoiding connection. Think about couples that are fighting or angry people. I have a whole article devoted to why people avoid eye contact when they are angry.
Let’s take each one of these and elaborate a bit more. When do they happen, and what can you do about it if you find yourself in a situation where one of these scenarios is playing out.
Let’s say you are in a conversation with someone and notice that the eye contact is off.
What is happening when someone can’t make eye contact during a conversation
We’ve all been in a conversation where someone seems that they aren’t paying attention.
Remember that healthy eye contact is usually somewhere in between 50% and 70% of the conversation. It’s like a seesaw. On one end of the spectrum, too much eye contact can be creepy, and on the other end of the spectrum comes off dismissive and uninterested. When it dips below 40% percent, all bets are off.
It really is safe to assume that when someone isn’t making much eye contact during a one on one conversation, that they don’t want to be in the conversation. I like to look at people’s feet in this scenario. If their feet are pointing away from you, they want to make an exit.
My husband used to run a window cleaning company. He noticed something funny about it. He said, even when he was certain that he was earning more a year / wealthier than an individual whose home he was in, they saw what he was doing as socially inferior.
He quickly discovered that people were quite dismissive simply because of the perception. The key is not to take it personally. When people measure social strata (layers of our society), people tend to make a quick call on who they are talking to. That is why it is fun to watch shows like “Undercover Boss.”
We realize that if people knew that they were talking to the CEO of the company, they would show a bit more respect. Of course, these are broad generalizations, but I’m sure you are tracking with me.
It’s important that people aren’t making these decisions consciously, they are simply reacting to their perception (of which they are often not aware.)
It’s all driven in the subconscious mind (until you become aware). I read some studies on how the cerebellum does this. I don’t think that is pertinent to our discussion, so I am going to skip over it.
The best way to cope with a conversation with someone who is disengaged is to realize they aren’t doing it on purpose, they just haven’t internalized why they should pay close attention.
If you notice this, don’t be afraid to end the conversation and connect with someone else.
What if the person is important? Like a boss? What I know about having bosses and being a boss is that bosses appreciate your ability to lessen the pressure they feel in their work, so I would focus on what matters most to the individual you want to impress (for lack of a better word).
What if it is someone I’m interested in? In the next section, we discuss this in further detail.
But what if I can’t make eye contact with my crush?
If this is you, you probably will want to read my article on being yourself around the opposite sex.
There is nothing quite like the vulnerability of being “into” someone, not knowing whether it is reciprocated. What makes it worse, is when you are fairly certain they don’t feel the same way about you.
I think we want life to be safe (and most people avoid eye contact to maintain some level safe and reduce vulnerability.
I like to try to control the circumstances in my life, but I realize that trying to control things can be the enemy of a great life.
Before I was married, I really enjoyed holding on the idea of someone I liked. In a way, I didn’t want to make it clear I was interested because I didn’t want my suspicions to be confirmed that it was a one way street.
Now that I’m married and older, I would go back and tell my younger self to take the risk, and let the cards fall where they may. The only problem was that I was busy trying to protect my fragile self-esteem because if my crush rejected me, my confidence would be further shattered.
This type of thinking is a bit like never driving a car because you are afraid you will have an accident.
Let’s face it, playing it safe is limiting. So many people…
“…tiptoe through life hoping to arrive safely at death.”M.M. Gavillet
But what is the point? Confidence and choosing a life full of freedom becomes available on the other side of risk.
What about when someone can’t look you in the eye
We aren’t talking about the whole, yo, my eyes are up here scenario. We are talking about the person who seems to look everywhere else other than at you.
Sometimes people are surveying the people around you to see who they’d rather talk to. I usually dismiss this as cloaked opportunism, so I don’t get hung up on it and move on.
In my culture, it isn’t polite to look someone in the eye as a sign of respect (especially older people). So, if we limit the discussion to our western culture, where the absence of eye contact is thought to be more rude, there are only a few reasons someone can’t look you in the eye.
- Intimidation (Are you intimidating? Are they interested in you? are they attracted to you? Is he/she avoiding eye contact with me? Are they afraid of you?)
- Lack of interest -Blatant, I don’t want to have anything to do with you.
- They are hiding something, angry, or are having a bad day.
issue, i.e. anxiety, etc. Social/ psychological
Don’t forget that personality type plays a role in how long someone holds your gaze. Besides the main personality traits (melancholy, phlegmatic, sanguine and choleric), it is common that that people operate predominantly one of three planes of core principles.
Usually you can identify how people think by the phrases they use. If they often say things like, “picture this” or “see what I mean,” they are most likely visually oriented individuals. If they say things like, “listen to this” or “Do you hear what I’m saying?” While the feeling-oriented individuals tend to say things like, “you feel me?” They also tend to ask a lot of questions about how someone feels / felt about something.
Pay attention to how people talk, and you might discover that if for instance, they are more auditory oriented, their natural disposition will be less eye contact.
This can give you power over drawing the wrong conclusions when you feel like people give you too little eye contact.
I understand that eyes are important and we tend to hold our emotions there. I’ve studied up on eye movement and what they mean. From a high blink rate to what it means when someone looks down and to the right. I hope to share some of that in another post.
But for now, let me share with you the absolute best way to get to the bottom of why someone is avoiding eye contact. This is probably the most powerful take-away from the conversation we are having right now.
KEY STRATEGY: How do you handle it when someone can’t look you in the face?
Ask: Are you distracted?My go-to question
This is a great question because it is confrontational enough to get someone’s attention if they are being a slight bit rude. But, it isn’t too confrontational because you can always recover from it by letting them know how busy they are, and that it is okay if they have something (other than your interaction) on their mind.
Before I get into this, I have to let you in on something that is super important to understand. Everything that I’m about to say below depends on the individual.
You will need to get a baseline from them before you can make a significant interpretation of what their eyes are communicating.
(Just so you know, consider looking at someone’s feet and which direction they are pointing when you assess this stuff. It can really help. Here is a guide.)
In order to do this, you can ask them a question about their childhood. When someone thinks about their childhood, they have to recall something. The direction left or right will let you know where their recall centers are (for them as an individual).
You might ask, what was the color of your first house, school, dog, etc?
Then, to verify it, you will want to ask them about their dream home or what the man or woman of their dreams would look like assuming they don’t have it/them yet. Their eyes should go to the opposite side.
Finally, looking down usually indicates emotion (to the left some emotion and to the right deep emotion (like trauma). Note, it can also be reversed. Again, you need to establish a baseline.
Like what was it like when you had to put your first pet down. Watch their eyes. Of course, if you don’t know the individual, you can’t ask a lot of the questions for fear that they may sound intrusive, but you will still have a sense of what’s going on for the individual.
Let’s say that the person we are talking to looks up and to the right when you ask what color their childhood home was, indicating their recall eye movement is to the right. Then, this is how I would answer the following questions
What does it mean when someone looks down and to the left? They are creating something (could be lying) or they are rebuilding something in their minds, in which they aren’t certain of all the details. They are experiencing something emotionally while they put everything together (could be disappointment), but probably not deep sorrow, trauma or shame.
What does it mean when someone looks down and to the right? Usually, this is to recall something traumatic or recall something that triggers them significantly on an emotional level.
What does it mean when someone looks up and to the right? In this scenario (given the description mentioned above), this would be straight up memory recall.
What does it mean when someone looks up and to the left? They are creating the idea in their head (could be a lie). Watch for the windshield wiper motion. If they move their eyes left to right and then again left to right again, they may be trying to convince themselves of the idea. It’s like they create the idea on the left side and try to drag it over to the right side so they can believe it. Could be a lie, and it if their blink rate increases, you should pay close attention.