From birth to death and all occasions in between, the eyes have it.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The eyes of men converse as much their tongues.” We all know this to be true. A doctor with excellent bedside manner once told me that when he enters a treatment room, he immediately looks his patient in the eye. “This helps me understand my patient’s level of stress,” he explained.
From birth to death and all occasions in between, the eyes have it. While women and men differ in their eye behavior and what that behavior means, eye contact is the strongest form of nonverbal communication. A study headed by Stephen Janik and Rodney Wellens at the University of Miami in Florida found that 43.4 percent of the attention we focus on someone is devoted to their eyes, with the mouth running a poor second at 12.6 percent. (The mouth and the eyes together account for 56 percent of our attention.)
We attend to others' eyes because these organs are highly expressive of emotions. Why would we want to look into another's eyes if not to assess what that person is feeling? Think about the sentiments conveyed when a loved one’s eyes are dulled and flat, when they're sparkling with joy, when they’re softened by passion, when they’re filled with fear or surprise, or when they’re brimming with tears. How about the images or songs that accompany the following descriptions: shifty eyes, laughing eyes, wild eyes, lying eyes, and Bette Davis eyes. Here are just a few of the wide range of human emotions that the eyes convey:
1. Downward glance: Modesty in a woman or remorse for bad behavior in a child
2. Wide eyes: wonder, naiveté, or terror
3. Raised upper lids: displeasure
4. Rolled up: fatigue, impatience, or a signal that something is weird
5. Eye flash: Eyelids widened for less than a second to emphasize a word (usually an adjective) and also in quick greetings or silent communication between intimates. (At the end of a social evening, a couple may signal “let’s go” by this gesture alone.)
6. Bedroom Eyes: a woman’s soft, drooping lids promise seduction
7. Sidelong Glance: can indicate deference, desire, or deceit.
Sometimes an eye expression can have several meanings. Excessive blinking and fluttering, for instance, may signal anxiety, hesitancy, lack of confidence, and/or shyness. Because blinks increase as anxiety levels rise, experts have studied presidential candidates’ blinking rates to determine who prevailed in televised debates.
Some researchers have concluded that blinking even varies with sobriety. Small doses of alcohol increase the number of blinks temporarily while large doses slow the blinking to a dead stop. Too much blinking can even betray deceit, though there are probably easier ways than counting her husband’s blinks for a wife to discover whether he has been philandering.
Although we may crave eye contact with others, it is an unwritten rule of nonverbal communication that no one maintains it exclusively or continuously. We sustain eye contact approximately 60 percent of the time during interactions. That means most normal everyday interactions are a combination of gazing and eye contact. In the course of a thirty second interaction, research tracking the eyes has shown that people will gaze at fifteen different spots on or near the face, including the unusual design on the frame of a friend’s glasses, an ear popping out of her hair, her nonverbal affect, the peculiar way she moves her lips—along with her eyes.
It is clear that men and women handle their eye behavior differently. Take for example, standing face-to-face when making eye contact. For a woman, eye contact serves the purpose of information gathering but it’s also for bonding, intimacy. She’s looking for reactions to her messages but also building connection. For a man, direct eye contact is a challenge and a sign of competition. The genders attach two entirely different meanings to the same behavior, giving rise to communication disconnects.
Eye contact behavior reveals the balance of power, and all of these power-play behaviors have gender-based implications. If a woman is interacting with a man who is masking, she is desperately gazing for any crack in the façade in order to glean clues about his reaction to what she’s saying. Lack of eye contact can also be an indication of sex bias in an interview—a subtle nonverbal indication of general disinterest. You are not being taken seriously for the position. It can also mean he is not interested in pursuing an intimate relationship.
Finally, women equate eye contact with listening. If he is not maintaining eye contact, he is not listening to me. Not true. Men listen without maintaining eye contact but they do however miss a lot of nonverbal cues. We just don’t listen with our ears but with our eyes. This is an advantage women have because they look more and, consequently, get more information when they are listening. Most important, if he wants to score points with her, he should maintain more eye contact with her!