Q. Is it embarrassment? Is it guilt? It makes me uncomfortable when someone won't look me in the eyes when they are speaking with me. It makes me think there is something I don't know that is happening. Perhaps they are hiding something. What do you think?
A. Many people put a lot of meaning into eye contact, believing that it indicates certain characteristics about the individual, but that is a mistake because eye contact between two people depends primarily on the following reasons:
1. Cultural background
Eye contact is mainly directed by culture. In some cultures, especially Western ones, it is a big thing to maintain eye contact. It suggests that you are honest, forthright, with integrity and with nothing to hide. However, in other societies (like Asia and the West Indies), eye contact is not usually encouraged, especially between elders and youngsters. One averts one's eyes when there are two unequal people in the interaction, when one is clearly senior, when one is being reprimanded, when one is trying to impress the other and when one looks up to the other person. If I ever looked at my mother directly when she was telling me off I would have been clipped round the ear for being disrespectful. Eye contact is never maintained in such societies where both parities are unequal in age, status or role.
2. The people in the interaction
Eye contact can also be affected by the actual people in the situation. Often when a man or woman likes a person in a romantic way they often find it difficult to look the object of their affection in the eye because of the belief that the other person will discover their feelings through their eyes. So many people feel shy at actually looking directly at their date or partner and feel some discomfort doing so. In work situations, especially in Asian and African countries, many employees avoid looking at the boss directly as a mark of deference.
3. The situation itself
If it is a situation where one person is trying to impress, like in a job interview, many people will not engage in direct eye contact. Which is one reason why Eastern interviewees may be at a disadvantage in Western interviews where eye contact is expected and seen as an indicator of character! Those who cannot maintain eye contact are then regarded as shifty, dishonest or guilty of something, when nothing could be further from the truth.
The only way to interpret eye contact is when everyone is clearly aware of the rules and are playing to expectations. But if there is a cultural mix in the interaction, nothing can be read into a lack of eye contact simply because the parties would clearly be reacting to their own rules on this matter!
Elaine Sihera (Ms CYPRAH)
Emotional Health Adviser
"Respect and love begin with the self. If we have none, how can we give away any?"