When you see a person of the opposite sex for the first time, what part do you see first? Each person may give a different body part such as face, shoulders, legs or breasts, but the universal truth is that most people will unconsciously look at the person’s eyes first. The eyes are literally “windows to the soul”, providing valuable information about the person’s state of mood and mind.
Eye contact is an important part of social life. Looking directly into someone’s eyes conveys the message of “I am interested in what you are saying and you have my attention”, as if a bridge is made between the two people’s minds. Strong eye contact is a common feature of two people in love, as they communicate non-verbally to share their feelings of attraction. Good eye contact is seen as “socially appropriate”, giving the person an air of confidence and helping them build better rapport with the person they are talking to as the other person feels listened to and that they matter.
However, eye contact may not always be a good thing. If eye contact is too intense, the other person will become uncomfortable as they may feel that they are being probed and their privacy is being invaded. This is why people in crowds, such as in the subway, avoid eye contact with each other as to protect their privacy.
In Eastern cultures, direct eye contact may be seen as disrespectful, especially when speaking to a superior or a person older than you. To show respect, the person lower in hierarchy lowers their gaze.
Certain psychiatric disorders can result in poor eye contact. It is common for patients with depression or social anxiety to avert eye contact, minimising the social connection that comes from it. Autistic children are particularly famous for finding it extremely difficult to make eye contact with others as it unsettles them. The poor eye contact gives these people a cold, uncaring, weak image which may be criticised by other people.
Unlike modern humans, many animals perceive eye contact as a threat or a sign of aggression. It is very dangerous to maintain eye contact with an aggressive monkey or dog as it will increase your chance of being attacked.