Putting Words First: Why Eye Contact Shouldn’t Be Used to Measure a Person

When I was a child, my parents encouraged – well, more like forced – me to make eye contact.

“Look me in the eyes when I speak to you,” they’d bark.

They didn’t understand how painful making eye contact can be for me. It feels like I’m forcing myself to hold my hand over an open flame. My body is screaming at me. My brain is triggering every muscle to move, and it takes every ounce of energy to restrain myself.

I always wondered why it wasn’t easy for me. And why it never seemed to bother anyone else. It wasn’t until my autism diagnosis that I understood. Since then, I’ve questioned a lot of social norms that don’t seem reasonable.

We attach certain character traits to someone who makes steady eye contact during a conversation. But if we force everyone to do it, does it really mean anything?

Our society adopted eye contact as an important part of nonverbal communication. For many in Western society, we believe it conveys respect, attentiveness, and confidence. Yet, there is no basis for this perception. And by accepting and enforcing this expectation, we are marginalizing those with neurodivergent conditions (like autism), different cultural backgrounds, and personal trauma. 

The Many Myths of Eye Contact

It isn’t a myth that many autistic people are uncomfortable with establishing and maintaining eye contact. Many, especially women who went undiagnosed as children, force themselves to either suffer the discomfort or pretend to look people in the eyes. Pretending can be looking at a person’s ear, nose, or mouth. Somewhere close to the eyes to appear as though we are following social expectations.

But this expectation – to make eye contact during conversations – was established on assumptions. Eye contact is not needed for effective communication.

Let’s look at a few eye contact myths.

Eye Contact is Universally Expected

My first university was in Hawai’i and had a large Asian student base. One of my professors started the first day of class with a speech directed at the Asian students in the room – “In the United States, your role as students is to take part in class, raise your hand and answer questions, and look me in the eyes when you speak with me.”

My heart sank for them. I knew firsthand what it was like to be forced to conform to uncomfortable social standards. In many Asian cultures, eye contact, especially with an authority figure, is perceived as rude and disrespectful.

As our world grows smaller and more connected, we must recognize that nonverbal communication isn’t always universal.

What is appropriate in one culture may not be in another culture.

Eye contact is not a universally accepted practice.

Are you paying attention to me?

Sitting in a meeting, having coffee with a friend, or conversing with the bank teller; in all conversations eye contact is used to measure the level of attentiveness of the other person. But as a former high school teacher, I can tell you from experience that avoiding eye contact doesn’t mean someone isn’t paying attention. I’ve had many ADHD students doodling in their notebooks who could still recite verbatim what I said and participate in class discussions while never lifting their eyes from the paper in front of them.

Some people need to avert their gaze to focus on what you are saying. 

Autism is another example. As an autistic, my brain doesn’t filter out unnecessary external stimuli. It takes a lot of effort to hear and process a conversation when you can’t filter out unimportant details. The music in the restaurant, the waiter rushing past the table, the temperature of the room, and monitoring my facial expressions can be overwhelming.

Now I’m expected to read my conversation partner’s facial expressions on top of all that? It’s too much. Cue the sensory overload!

Sensory overload will also interfere with my audio-processing ability. Looking someone in the eye increases the number of times I have to ask the other person to repeat themselves. Removing the need to read their face, especially their eyes, makes cutting through the other external stimulus easier. I can then focus on processing what they are communicating verbally.

Contrary to society’s assumption, averting my gaze doesn’t mean I’m uninterested. I want to focus on what you’re saying as much as possible, so I look away.

And research supports my experience.

Researchers studied gaze aversion in allistic individuals and discovered that “averting the gaze has functional consequences. That is, for moderately difficult questions, people are more accurate [with their answers] when they avert their gaze (here, close their eyes) than when they do not.”

And they “speculate that averting the gaze helps people to disengage from environmental stimulation and thereby enhances the efficiency of cognitive processing directed by nonenvironmental stimulation.”

Any autistic person can tell you it does. But, as it turns out, it helps everyone, too, not only us neurodivergent folk.

Averting our gaze can improve our cognitive abilities.

Liar, liar, pants on fire!

Every time I’d tell my parents the truth they would demand that I look them in the eyes and tell them.

I learned early on that eye contact = truthfulness. Since 4th or 5th grade, I forced myself to look the other person in the eye when someone questioned my integrity.

It worked for a while. Until my little sister mastered lying to our parents’ faces, she held her gaze steady and calm. And she got away with many horrible things because of it.

It’s crazy that we make these assumptions about eye contact. I guess it’s because we view eyes as the “windows into the soul.” We assume a liar would look away to avoid feeling exposed through eye contact. But research says that’s not the case. Liars, in fact, are more deliberate in their eye contact.

“It comes as no surprise that most people think gaze aversion signals deception. Intuitively, this makes sense. People who feel embarrassed avoid eye contact. People who feel ashamed avoid eye contact. People who are under a heavy cognitive load tend to avoid direct eye contact. However, it does come as a surprise that research shows there is no connection between lying and the amount of eye contact between the liar and the target of the lie.”

Jack Schafer Ph.D.

Also, looking away while speaking can help with accurate memory retrieval. In short, it improves your chances of telling the truth – in accurate details.  

Each of these studies chips away at our assumptions about eye contact and, hopefully, leads us to consider other assumptions about nonverbal communication.

Awareness can help us be inclusive of everyone

If we want a more inclusive society, we should revisit our expectations around social norms, like making eye contact.

Research tells us that what we know about making eye contact isn’t accurate. And we are leaving people behind because of it. For example, one of my coworkers removed a candidate from consideration because he couldn’t make eye contact. “It’s just weird, you know?” she said.

Did she pay attention to his experience? Or his answers to her questions? No. In fact, she dismissed a high-quality candidate because he didn’t conform to her assumptions about non-verbal communication.

We need to open ourselves to different communication styles.

Accept, don’t judge, people for averting their gaze during a conversation. Recognize that forcing eye contact can traumatize many and only increase social anxiety.

Many people are confident and knowledgeable but are uncomfortable making eye contact.

More and more autistics are speaking up about our experiences. But our call for a society that is aware and inclusive doesn’t stop at us – it extends beyond us. That’s what I love most about autistic awareness. The more we question social norms and accept autistic differences, the more we accept everyone’s differences. 

Recognizing and respecting that nonverbal communication styles often deviate from the norm, we listen more and assume less.

So, as we challenge social norms such as eye contact, let’s move beyond the “disability” label and remind ourselves that this is inclusion in action. Communication styles vary from culture to culture, brain to brain, and are influenced by personal experiences such as trauma and anxiety.

Put more weight on a speaker’s words than their ability to follow social norms. And remain consciously aware that much of what we understand about nonverbal communication is fluid and often rooted in false assumptions.

And please don’t ever force your child to look you in the eye.

2 thoughts on “Putting Words First: Why Eye Contact Shouldn’t Be Used to Measure a Person

    1. Thank you very much for taking the time to read it. Eye contact is still one of those social norms that I really have problems unmasking because the expectation to do it is so embedded in our culture. But more and more autistics are speaking out! One day, perhaps, we won’t feel so pressured to conform.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: