When a lecturer notices that most of the students are not looking at him/her, s/he might conclude that they are not paying attention. Eye contact indicates that the students are paying attention, giving respect to their teacher and experiencing certain emotions in response to what is being taught. A deeper insight based on technical grounds reveals certain trends in these eye behaviours that are categorized as “Oculesics”.
Oculesics is a form of nonverbal communication that derives meaning from eye behaviour. It is a subcategory of kinesics — the study of body language — which decodes eye movement, gaze, eye behaviour and everything your eyes may be conveying in a secret code.
Primarily, the following four factors are used to interpret eye gestures:
People cover or shield their eyes when they feel threatened or repulsed by what they are seeing. Needless to say, it is an indicator of discomfort. This is an innate behaviour — children who are born blind still cover their eyes when they hear bad news. Eye blocking could also be done in the form of eye rubbing or excessive blinking.
Lowered eyelids indicate being sad or hurt. Squinting at someone indicates suspicion. Raising eyebrows is a gesture of congeniality. Darting eyes often means that the person feels insecure and is looking for escape routes from talking to another person.
Length of Duration of Contact
This is a culturally variable phenomenon. Various cultures have different interpretations of eye contact. In Western cultures, looking in the eyes while talking is considered a symbol of honesty. In African cultures, lowering down your gaze is an expression of humility. In Japan, prolonged eye contact is considered rude, disrespectful and at times threatening. In China, too much eye contact is considered rude. In the Middle Eastern countries, people tend to use continuous eye contact to reflect keen interest.
It makes one question: how long is too long? Studies show that on average, the most comfortable eye contact lasts around 3 seconds. It means that it only takes 3.3 seconds of staring to freak one out!
The size of the pupils is controlled by muscles in the coloured part of the eye (iris), which in turn controls the amount of light entering the eyes. When human beings like what they see, they want to allow more light to enter their eyes to have a better look. This causes pupil dilation, more familiarly known in medical terms as “mydriasis”. Pupil dilation is a sign of interest. When an individual sees something offensive, their pupils constrict to block out the offensive image.
Nevertheless, pupil constriction and dilation is also a light-dependent phenomenon.
When someone looks right into somebody’s eyes, this is generally a good sign. After all, most of us will try to look into someone’s eyes to show interest. Usually, people look away because they’re processing something.
While looking up indicates contemplation, looking down is not a good sign. It could also express guilt or disinterest. It is like saying, “My God!” with their eyes. Constantly looking down, on the other hand, signals submissiveness.
Looking in the upper-left direction indicates the person may well be trying to fetch something from their immediate visual memory. Looking towards the lateral left indicates an effort to recall a song or a sound memory.
The devil isn’t really on your left shoulder — he’s on your left collarbone. So, if someone is talking to themselves or is deep in thought, they will likely look towards their lower left.
Looking towards the upper-right corner of their eyes could mean the person is creating a visual image of something or it could potentially indicate that they are lying. If someone is potentially lying about a conversation, they are likely to look towards their lateral right. When you close your eyes, remember, you always move them towards the lower right. Remembering the feeling of something pushes the eyes towards the lower right? Try it!
Professor Albert Mehrabian concluded in his book ‘Silent Messages’ that communication is only 7 % verbal and 93 % non-verbal. Many books have been published discussing how to put this principle to work in organizations. Philip Yaffe ( a graduate in Mathematics and Physics from the University of California), on the contrary, believes that the 7% rule is a mere myth. He challenges the notion that what a person says is considerably less important than how he says it. He outright denies the claim that content accounts for only 7% of the success of the presentation. Some suggest this experience: Tell someone you love them and then shake your head “no” at the same time, you will become a believer in Mehrabian.
Whether a person endorses Mehrabian or Yaffe, one cannot deny that non-verbal communication plays an integral role in how and what has been communicated. There are, after all, many ways to see.
(The writer chooses to go by the pen name “Alexa”).
- Poggi I., D’Errico F., Spagnolo A. (2010) The Embodied Morphemes of Gaze. In: Kopp S., Wachsmuth I. (eds) Gesture in Embodied Communication and Human-Computer Interaction. GW 2009. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 5934. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg
- Body Language Exposed: Find Out How Your Body Can Betray You By Chee Seng Leow, Vincent Leong, Atikah Adom
- Navarro, Joe, and Marvin Karlins. What Every BODY Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-reading People. New York, NY: Collins Living, 2008.
- Silent messages by Albert Mehrabian
- The 7% rule revisited by Philip Yaffe