“The eyes are the window to your soul”
- William Shakespeare
You’ve probably wondered why most of us don’t like making eye contact. You’ve probably boiled it down to us just being shy or antisocial. But there’s a lot more to it than that. We experience eye contact in a completely different manner than you guys. I’m not saying that only introverts feel this way – some extroverts might feel exactly the same – I’m just saying that I’ve noticed it more in introverts. I think the best way to explain this is by having a look at what philosopher John Locke has to say.
John Locke? What’s He Got To Do With It?
A lot, as it turns out. John Locke is one of my favourite Philosophers. He’s written tonnes of stuff and is widely considered to be one of the most important philosophers of the 17th century. In his work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he wrote about the importance of identity. I feel this relates a lot to what happens when we make eye contact, but I’ll explain that later.
Why Bring It Up Now, Then?
Because I can. Also, because before I can explain my own thoughts on eye contact, I think it’s important to look at what the social norm is.
In our society, eye contact can be a really subtle form of interaction or an incredibly explicit one. There are times when you have to make eye contact and there are times when you should definitely not make eye contact. At all. Ever.
Making Eye Contact
Eye contact can convey loads of different meanings. When talking to your elders, it can show respect. It can be used as a conversation starter (What the hell are you looking at, punk?) or a conversation preventer (Eww, that creepy guy won’t stop staring at us!).
If you make eye contact with someone who’s talking, it can show you’re paying attention. It can even assert your dominance in certain social situations. Eye contact helps create a certain bond between people. It can show trust and even admiration.
Avoiding Eye Contact
Avoiding eye contact can be seen as a sign of social anxiety or shyness. People think it is insulting if you don’t look at them while having a conversation. You can come across as suspicious, awkward, or just plain weird. Additionally, it’s thought that people who lie a lot avoid eye contact when speaking, although this isn’t necessarily true.
Culture and Religion
And of course, there are cultural and religious aspects to it. In the Eastern world, eye contact is often considered inappropriate; avoiding eye contact when speaking to your superiors shows respect. As a Muslim, I’m taught to lower my gaze and try not to focus too much on the physical features of the opposite sex.
It’s interesting to see how many different interpretations there are for a gesture as simple as looking into another person’s eyes.
The Introvert’s Perspective
Now we get to what I think about this whole phenomenon. Remember how I was talking about John Locke and his idea of identity?
You Just Mentioned It A Few Paragraphs Ago…
Right you are, blog reader. I was just checking if you were paying attention. Well, I think Mr. Locke has a perfect way to explain it all.
His idea is simple: We are never the same person.
We are all different people at different times. You’re not the same person you were when you were 6 years old. You’re not the same person you were yesterday. You’re not ever the same person you were when you started reading this sentence!
You’re a different person when you’re out with your friends. You’re a different person when you’re with your parents or family. You’re a different person when you’re with your closest friend. These are all your different “selves”.
Where Mr. Locke and I differ, is the point of your “true self”. I think that underneath all your different personas, all those different identities, all those different masks, there lies a real you. An unchanging you. The “true” you.
You’re truly you when you’re completely alone. When you know that no one is watching. That’s the real you. I think we put on these different faces and personalities when we’re with other people as an attempt at some personal privacy. Whether it’s done consciously or not, doesn’t really matter in this case.
I Still Don’t See What This Has Got To Do With Eye Contact…
Well, let me explain. For most people, eye contact is not a big deal. It’s just looking at another person’s eyes. They’ll notice what colour the eyes are, their shape, how often the person blinks etc. Of course, they’ll realise that eye contact for a prolonged period of time is weird. But for the most part, eye contact is just a social norm for these people.
For an introvert (and some extroverts), I think eye contact has a much deeper significance. When I look into your eyes, I’m not just looking at you in the physical sense. I’m actually not even paying attention to the physical eyeball.
You know how I said my brain and I are separate things in my last post? I leave it to my brain to pick up on your eye colour, size, and shape. He/It stores the information in the relevant filing cabinet in my mind. I’m not looking at your physical aspects.
So What Are You Looking At, Then?
I’m looking past your external persona. I’m looking at you. Yep, the italicized you. Not the fake upright one. I’m looking at the real you. The one hidden beneath all those barriers you put up. I cut through the façade and see your true, authentic self.
I don’t do this intentionally. I’m not trying to probe your mind, honest. It just happens.
And I know this is going to sound really dramatic and corny, but I’m going to say it anyway. When it does happen, I see your innermost thoughts, desires, fears, aspirations etc. I see you at your most vulnerable. I see the parts of you you’ve hidden away or are trying to forget. I see what kind of person you actually are, deep down.
Who are you, really?
And that’s a frightening experience for me. It feels like I’m trespassing. I’m seeing parts of your mind I’m not supposed to. Why else would you have created this exterior persona to show off to the world? You put up these boundaries for a reason. Who am I to go snooping around in the depths of your mind? It’s rude. It’s invasive. It’s scary (for both of us). And it just feels wrong.
Imagine you’re invited to someone’s house for dinner. They sit you down in the living room and go to the kitchen to prepare the meal. While they’re gone, you decide to go snooping around their house. You look in their closets, you rifle through their drawers, you inspect their bedroom etc.
It’s a blatant invasion of privacy. You’re not supposed to go there at all. If they found out, they would feel violated. It’s the same thing with eye contact.
So Eye Contact Is A Big Deal For You, Huh?
Yeah, it’s a big deal. For me, eye contact is an intimate and incredibly personal thing. I can hold casual eye contact for a second or two, max.
Any more than that, whether it’s just a second longer or a solid 5 minutes, and that’s when I stare into your soul (not to sound too macabre, or anything). I’m told I have “these like black, soul-searching eyes, you know? They sort of penetrate the very core of a person’s being. It’s freaky.“
I think J.K. Rowling did a wonderful job explaining it with Dumbledore’s eyes. Ignoring the fact that he’s an accomplished Legilimens and can actually read your mind, I think his eyes are described brilliantly.
“His tone was light, but his blue eyes pierced Snape as they had frequently pierced Harry, as though the soul they discussed was visible to him. At last Snape gave another curt nod.”
- Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Of course, when I’m thinking hard and just staring off into space, I don’t see anything at all. We might be making solid eye contact for all I know, but I’m completely unaware of this happening. It happens a lot.
You know how it is. I’ll be running on autopilot and while my body’s acting normally, I’ll be thinking about all sorts of stuff. More often than I’d like to admit, I (my body) might be making eye contact with a friend and they’ll usually wave or smile or something (I don’t know, I’m not really paying attention).
Of course, since I (my body) am running on autopilot, I (me) will have no idea that I’m looking at them and so I won’t react in any way. So the other person will think I was rude and ignored them or that I pretended not to see them. And that has led to problems and horrible misunderstandings.
So to the many many people I’ve done that to, I apologise and hope you understand.
This Is Some Deep Stuff, Bro. I Had No idea!
Yes. Yes it is. And don’t call me bro.
But Realistically, You Can’t Avoid Eye Contact Forever.
Sadly, you speak the truth, blog reader. I understand the importance of eye contact in our society. It’s always nice to fit in with everyone, so I do my best to deal with the social norms.
When having a conversation with someone, for example, I will glance in their general direction to indicate that I’m listening.
But I’d like to point out that just because I’m not looking at you does not mean I’m not paying attention. If anything, it shows that I’m listening intently. I tend to pay more attention to you when I’m not looking at you.
Eye contact just gets in the way, in my opinion. But social norms dictate that I occasionally make eye contact, so I abide by the rules. Because that’s what people do.
I will look at your facial features (eyebrows, nose, forehead, mouth etc.) to indicate my attentiveness and may even make eye contact for a split-second, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go.
Any Tips For Other Eye-Contact-Avoiders?
For those of you who feel the same, or are just socially anxious or shy, here’s a little tip when it comes to eye contact. If you don’t feel comfortable looking at people in the eye, look at the spot just in between their eyebrows (assuming they don’t have a monobrow or a gigantic pimple there, in which case, LOOK ANYWHERE ELSE).
If you look at the point between their eyebrows, it seems as though you’re looking into the other person’s eyes and they’ll appreciate that you’re making eye contact.
That Was Really Well Said! I Understand Now!
I’m glad you do! I really wanted to explain this concept properly. I had the entire idea in my mind for days. And I’ve written about 1200 words now, but sadly, I feel as though I haven’t expressed the idea as eloquently as I wanted to. And that sucks. Yes, I can edit and edit and edit some more, but I doubt it’ll be perfect.
Martin Heidegger, perhaps the most influential philosopher of the 20th century (definitely the most incomprehensible, in my opinion), had this wonderful notion of ‘discourse’. Basically, he says that our current form of communication isn’t good enough to express ourselves existentially (and it never will be). We need a whole new way of truly expressing ourselves in an existential sense and no matter how articulate you are, you’ll never achieve that level of expression.
Heidegger says the closest we’ve come to this whole new way of truly expressing ourselves is poetry. That’s sort of how it is with this post; just the idea that this could have been said better. Hopefully, you understand what I’m trying to get across here.
Till then, I hope you’ve gotten a better understanding of how big a deal eye contact is for the average introvert.
A Socially Awkward Introvert
What do you think about this whole concept? Is eye contact an intimate thing for you or is it no big deal? Let me know in the comments below!
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