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Home Blog Communication Whatever You Do, Don’t Make Eye Contact. Or Should We?

Whatever You Do, Don’t Make Eye Contact. Or Should We?


I used to commute into the City every day for work, spending far too many hours on trains, tubes and buses. I haven't done it regularly in over two years but a couple of weeks ago I travelled up to meet some old colleagues on a Thursday afternoon and found myself surprised at the number of people around and, most oddly, a little nervous. When you're not used to it, it's an interesting - and sometimes intimidating - experience to be crammed into a small space with so many other human beings.

If you're anything like me, it's a great opportunity to people-watch, but there is a sense of internal conflict as instincts pull me in different directions. On one hand, I am drawn to look at my fellow passengers, check out their hair, shoes, bags, etc. Research shows that from the moment we are born we are drawn to look other people's faces (particularly beautiful ones!) But on the other hand, it's uncomfortable to make eye contact with strangers and certainly not the 'done thing' on public transport in London. Social etiquette of commuting in London, and I'm sure most big towns and cities, demands that you avoid locking eyes with strangers and should immediately look away when you do accidentally meet eyes with someone.

Eye contact is a powerful aspect of human communication and not to be taken lightly. I'm sure I've read somewhere that when two mammals look into each other's eyes for more than a few seconds, it means they are either about to fight, or have sex! It's hardly surprising then that all those people crammed into trains and tubes prefer staring into their smart phones, is it?

Is this human nature, or an expression of cultural norms that have evolved in modern societies over centuries? Is there another culture where strangers happily gaze at each other without fear of social angst or crippling self-consciousness?

I can't answer that definitively, but there are certainly some factors that seem to influence our likelihood to make eye contact with strangers:

Cultural Norms
The way people respond to strangers certainly varies from country to country. Psychology professor, Bill Huitt, had a colleague who was living in Germany who said that "even in small towns, people do not make eye contact or speak in the street unless they are closely acquainted." When his colleague suggested to a neighbour with same-age children that they should get together for a barbecue one night, the reply was "no, I don't think so". In Muslim countries people are expected to lower their gaze with members of the opposite sex. In Japan, they lower their eyes as a sign of deference to a figure of authority. Other countries, such as Greece, Spain, Italy, Mexico, and India, are known for the warmth and friendliness of the people, with people less reserved about making eye contact or starting conversations with strangers.

Small Town Syndrome
The smaller the town, the more likely people are to engage with a stranger. In small communities, we are more likely to bump into a friend, and so we remain more open to possibilities. In a big city, like London, we become more risk averse (stranger danger) and we keep to ourselves. I've certainly seen evidence of this since I stopped commuting and started working from home, even more so since my son started school. Our small town in Hertfordshire is full of people ready to smile and say hello to people they don't necessarily know, me included.

Performance Anxiety
We are less likely to make eye contact in a large group because of the added anxiety of our interactions being observed by others. In other words, two people on an elevator may be likely to smile, nod, make eye contact, and perhaps even exchange a few words. With 5 people on the elevator, we are more likely to stare blankly at the wall, or look down at our phone, to avoid interaction in a public setting. Making eye contact is about risk and vulnerability. It is about exposing ourselves to another person, letting them in. This requires two things: confidence and safety. The more strangers around, the less safe we feel.

There is some research to suggest that a simple gesture of eye contact can make a big impact on the wellbeing of the strangers we come into contact with throughout the day. The simple act of avoidance makes a big impact too. Wouldn't the world be a great place if everyone were more eager to connect and interact with others, strangers or not? What's that saying? "Strangers are only friends we haven't met yet?" Let's give it a try, smile at a stranger today and see what happens.

Let us know how you get on, we love hearing from you.

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