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Homework. I.

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It is natural for all human beings, in a normal society, to avoid eye contact. This is a result of living in close quarters, very close together, closer than we ever have in all of history.

Eye contact is a sign of intimacy. If a couple doesn’t have eye contact, they aren’t close. Lack of eye contact helps us feel comfortable in crowded spaces. Your iPhone helps with this a lot, without you even thinking about it.

Eye contact is a signal of complicity. If people have prolonged eye contact, they probably know each other and are involved (or want to be).

Eye contact is also a sign of power, and it’s this aspect in particular that we’re concerned with today.

If you have never outright thought about it, your eyes are probably very evasive. I figured this out about myself a long time ago. I would avoid eye contact, and by doing so, I’d both be avoiding intimacy and displaying inferiority over someone else.

You’ll notice that, when you look at someone and they look back, it gives you almost a feeling of defiance if you keep looking. If you look down, you are showing embarrassment. You’re almost apologetic with your eyes. Interesting, right?

Homework

Your homework for this weekend is to explicitly make eye contact with people you don’t know.

As you walk down the street, when you’d normally avoid eye contact with people who walk by you, look them straight in the eye.

Some won’t even look at you, while others will. But don’t worry about others’ reactions. You’re doing this for yourself.

If people look at you, just gaze back at them for a second. Don’t stare for like 10 seconds– in fact, you won’t need to because most people will look away instantly. As you watch this happen, keep in mind that this is what you used to do.

If you catch yourself looking away, don’t worry, you’re just practicing.

Easy thing to remember: don’t open your eyes wide open. This makes you look like a psycho. Instead, narrow your gaze. Another thing: eye contact means different things in different cultures. Remember this as you practice.

Good luck with your assignment. Report back in the comments when you’re done.

* Filed by Julien at 10:18 am under homework


Hi, I’m Julien Smith. I'm the founder and CEO of Breather.

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65 Responses to “Homework. I.”

  1. Josh Says:

    This is something I’ve taught myself over the past year or so, as I got deeper into customer service as a profession. Along with standing up straight, eye contact is the easiest thing I’ve done to remind my customers that they don’t boss me around. I’m there to serve them, but on my terms. They ask me for something instead of demanding it of me. And I think there’s a lot more mutual respect now.

  2. Valeria Maltoni Says:

    Glad you liked Michele Catania’s work. It’s one of the most striking images of a gaze I have ever found and used.

    We used to have a contest growing up — who could lock eyes with someone else for longer. There is so much humanity and story coming through someone’s eyes.

  3. steph Says:

    Interesting post – In undergrad (many many years ago so I cannot verify source/accuracy) I remember studying eye contact in the context of gender power dynamics. Apparently men see women who will not look away as aggressive – more so than other men who will not avert their gaze. Of course I had to test this immediately, and although I did not ask the men how they felt about me not averting my gaze, I could definitely feel hostility on a visceral level. Not something I was used to at all (and I don’t think I was doing the creepy staring thing). To this day I am aware of this phenomenon as I try to not fall into a habit of looking away to placate the other.

  4. Patti Says:

    I’m just old enough to have grown up in a time where it was much more normal to make eye contact with the people you walk past. I still do it and in general they look away immediately.

    If they stick with it I smile. A smile usually makes all the difference (except for a few who think making eye contact and smiling is direct evidence of psycho behavior).

    Those who see my smile (and don’t immediately look away) invariably return it. We’ll sometimes even exchange a, “Hi” or, “Good morning.” When this happens, I feel good when this happens and my hope is that the recipient feels the same.

    This may be why people tend to approach me with questions such as to ask the time or directions. By not looking away, I must become approachable in their eyes and much less likely to rebuff their advances toward conversation.

    I think this is a good thing.

  5. Calli Says:

    Considering my industrial-strength generalized anxiety disorder, it’s peculiar that I have no problem making eye contact with strangers. In fact, I’ve been told that I make too much spooky, soul-sucking eye contact. Before job interviews, etc., I’ve even been advised to practice occasionally glancing away. “You look like you’re either reading my mind or about to set me on fire with yours,” one of my close friends told me.

    • Katrina Miller-Fallick Says:

      I have the same anxiety issues Calli, and also the same eye contact thing. LOTS of time people have told me that the amount of eye contact that I make, and maintain, is uncomfortable, even aggressive. Interesting, it’s mostly men that have mentioned this to me. Rarely women.

      I also make eye contact with people on the street. If they hold eye contact I’ll smile. Also, I feel it’s a bit of a safety thing. If I feel threatened by a strangers presence, I’ll look them in the eye. They KNOW I can see them, and am aware of them. It makes me less vulnerable.

  6. win Says:

    Hey Julien,
    Funny that your first homework is about eye-contact. From your another post, I had identified the things that made me uncomfortable, and one of them was keeping eye contacts with people I don’t know. Have been “doing things that make me uncomfortable” since.

    The 2 reactions: people look away or people smile at you.

    Great stuff!

    Win

  7. Bill Deys Says:

    As a runner and motorcyclist I quickly learned that you can stop a car at an intersection fairly easily. All you have to do is make eye contact and stare them down.

    I’ve had a few instences that, in both settings, that I’m certain making eye contact with a driver saved me from getting hit.

    • Marc Ensign Says:

      Great comment Bill..I am a cyclist and do a lot of long distance bicycling so I’m almost always in a constant state of getting hit by a car. I find myself naturally staring people down as I get to intersections and what not and it almost always works. Never would have thought of that.

      • Steve Says:

        Marc – I agree. I’m a bike commuter, and have to deal with the same things. Unfortunately, I wear sunglasses to protect my eyes while riding(bugs in the eye hurt) so making direct eye contact with a driver isn’t there, but they generally know when you are looking at them. When someone has done something stupid they avoid looking at me at all costs, usually.

  8. Marc Ensign Says:

    I’m in, but if I get my ass kicked this weekend, it’s on you.

  9. xaero Says:

    i am happy to say that I’m doing this for over a year already so I don’t have to do the homework cause it’s already my normal mode! :)

  10. verna Says:

    I do this consciously. In Italy if you looked into a man’s eyes, he would immediately think you wanted to sleep with him, and he would put on the moves- fortissimo.
    Today I ate lunch in a place for concerts where there was a guy playing gorgeous guitar and singing with a beautiful tone. He has more hair than sideshow Bob and it was all gray, as was his prodigious beard. Normally, I would not look at this guy to save my life, but I wanted to see who was underneath. I looked into as much of his eyes as I could see beneath the hair, and eyeglasses, and he saw me. It was loud in there, and my friend was yakking away but I only wanted to listen to the music. I wanted to make a friend. We left before the set ended but he will be around, and next time he will look at my eyes.

  11. Mark Brown Says:

    Interesting assignment, though it’s something I try to do on a regular basis anyways, whether on the subway or walking down the street.

    I find that people tend to look away quickly or put their head down. When that happens I start to worry that I’m scaring people or creeping them out. Though this may be true some times, I’m starting to think it has more to do with people being more ‘fearful’ of others in our society due to our increasing dependence on technology.

    Still, I’m gonna keep doing it anyways, maybe even start risking smiles (God knows I need to smile more). Looking forward to doing more of these homework assignments. Thanks!

  12. Kat Says:

    When I’m out hiking in the woods, I always make brief eye contact with other hikers I pass. About half will return the eye contact and say hi, maybe even stop to chat. The other half won’t even acknowledge my existence. It’s fascinating.

  13. Ciprian Says:

    Nice homework, I have also been doing it for about a year or so.

    Here’s one of the things that happened: I looked this cute girl in the elevator straight in the eye, she looked back for a few seconds and then she looked down. The thing that I wasn’t expecting was that her body language changed that moment and became a lot more feminine. We got off at the same floor, but I didn’t talk to her. What a waste!

    So try it guys, it’s worth it!

  14. Frédéric de Villamil Says:

    Nice homework. This is actually something I’ve been doing for a few months when I’m taking a not too crowded bus or metro, when people easily look / stare at you which make eye contact easier.

    It’s not that easy to win the eye fight when someone starts fighting with you though.

  15. Ernest B Says:

    Flashing even a faint smile takes down the creep factor considerably :)

  16. Rebecca Says:

    Julien, this is so cool! It’s an exercise I give clients sometimes when they are struggling with self esteem issues – usually women who are looking to start dating again after the ending of long relationships. I get them to look at men – that’s it. Hold a gaze for a second or two – that’s it. We are so shy about making eye contact because it is so intimate.

    Thank you for posting. Looking forward to making this homework ;)

  17. Alena Says:

    One of my father’s lessons for his daughters was to always make eye contact. If he was talking to us we were required to look him in the eye. This lesson has stuck with me my whole life, I always make eye contact. I have used eye contact to my advantage, for instance being in a social setting and where another female is doing that obvious sizing up the competition look which is meant to intimidate. In that situation I usually wait until they are done with the downward sweep and are making their way back up and meet their eyes directly. Nothing startles you more than getting caught in the act.
    Another time I will make direct eye contact is when I am out running alone, this sounds scary but if someone won’t make eye contact along with a friendly hello then to me they are someone to be wary of and it is important to know that when you are alone. Not to mention when you make eye contact and say a friendly greeting then that person is more likely to remember you, which again can be important when running alone.
    Aside from this making eye contact boosts your self confidence.

  18. Nicholas Says:

    This is something I’ve been working on for the past year or so, actually. A big problem of mine used to be that I would look away for a second while someone was talking to me because I felt uncomfortable keeping my eyes on them. The quick look-away would make me feel better momentarily so that I could return my eyes for another chunk of time. As I have interacted with more professionals and adults such as professors(I am going to be a senior in college), however, I have begun to keep my eyes locked on theirs for as long as possible. It is still difficult at times; the main thing I need to work on is focusing more on what they are saying to me than the actual focus of keeping eye contact. Who knew such a thing could be so difficult? Eye contact is so very important…I have trained myself, and expect the same of others. Since I am pursuing a degree in a science discipline, I have actually encountered some very socially awkward professors. Most of them look away when I shake hands with them, which to me is insulting. This is why I do not look away anymore, and if I do it is only due to a lapse in my concentration due to a penetrating, momentary fear. It does make me feel, though, like I have some sort of power over them, as stated in this post. Good luck, all.

  19. Nicholas Says:

    Also, in response to Patti, I have also begun to try my best not to look away when a cute girl looks at me. She’s usually looking for a reason, and when I hold my eyes, about 70% of the time I receive a smile. Of course, I smile in return. It is very empowering and can change the outlook of the entire day. A smile goes a long way.

  20. Sherman Rockwell Says:

    I can’t wait to start this!

  21. Kanchax Says:

    Done and done. I won’t do it anymore though because my physical behavior does enough by itself.

  22. Danielle Says:

    Good information. But it’s also homework in The Four Hour Work Week. I hope to see some “assignments” that are new.

  23. Jo-Anne Says:

    Ok maybe I am odd but I often make eye contact with people while out shoping I will also smile at others as I go about my shoping…………

  24. steve Says:

    I work in retail, and frequently make sure that I make eye contact with people. Also, when walking down the street, to make sure that I let others know I am not intimidated by them, I will make long eye contact with them. Doing this gives me tons of confidence.

  25. Josh Says:

    Julien, just wanted to thank you for these assignments. I’ve always sought to think and act outside the normal, but as you know it’s easy to fall back in line.

  26. Mistraldor Says:

    I do that many time a week. One funny homework : crossing a pedestrian crossing by looking in front of you when the cars are stopped, then when you are in the middle of the crossing, turn your head to the car and made ​​a threatening facial expression and keep staring them while continuing to walk :D

  27. Trista Says:

    I’m so glad this is the first homework assignment. Making straight and steady eye contact is something I decided to make my “normal” a long time ago. I get comments all the time from others thanking me for it as they feel both seen and heard because of it. Thank you for pulling this into the light, recognizing its importance.

  28. Jim Says:

    I made eye contact with a mom, smiled, and she smiled back. Overall, a pleasant experience. I’ve noticed that most people do not make eye contact on a regular basis.

  29. Kalvyn Evans Says:

    I consciously used prolonged eye contact to seduce a woman. That really is almost all it took.

  30. debby goforth Says:

    I did the homework for a different reason; I HAD the confidence at one time. But after one year in Japan, I’ve lost a truck load of it.
    So everyone on the train hates making eye contact. It doesn’t take long there to incite hostile body language. While cycling on the beach, the walkers averted eye contact. The joggers will meet your gaze then turn away. The most serious cyclists definitely held your gaze the longest. No one nodded a greeting at all. This bothers me as I am from a rural area on the WA Coast and we always greet each other no matter what. The other comments do make me feel much better- they show how this is a universal failure of mankinds’ kindhearted acknowledgment of each other – not just this problem between Japan and myself.. notice I did not say mankinds’ respect for each other; there’s plenty of that here.

  31. Shahor Says:

    I try to do that on a daily basis. It can be hard sometimes but it’s a fun thing to do and you feel more confident as you do it.

    Fun exercice

  32. rosie Says:

    I almost always look people in the eye and it usually goes like this:

    -I glance momentarily
    -Keep contact for a few seconds, or more unless they reaally pique my interest (for e.g someone like this xD
    http://unrealitymag.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/12/midnight.jpg but seriously, when I saw the Toronto Batman…my goodness I was like, “Noooo freakin’ way!!” It was hard to look away when you see your favourite super hero)
    -Then I drift my attention elsewhere…

    Wow, Mistraldor…I don’t think I have the guts to do that! But I’m gonna try it.

    I will definitely keep this post in mind. There’s this person at my school in which I previously had a few classes with and who I don’t really know but for some reason, I just can’t look them in the eyes. I find myself just turning my head or focusing at someone else to avoid any contact while passing them in the hallway. But then I read that doing so shows inferiority, and ya know what? The next time I see this person, I’m gonna look at them straight in their eyes!

    Thanks Julien!!!:)

  33. FJR Says:

    This assignment fits nicely into a duty I have today of greeting people for three hours at one entrance to a giant folk festival! But to be fair, I have the job because I have no reluctance to make eye contact with strangers.

  34. Pete Says:

    Really cool homework! I’m introverted, shy guy, so doing it was difficult at first, but after few minutes it became awesome! Generally people look away, or also stare at you. What was even more awesome about this that some really pretty girls made an eye contact back with me. Yay!

    By the way, it is nice to meet you Julien!

  35. Jason B. Says:

    I did this yesterday when I went to pick up a package from a store and deliver it to a friend’s apartment. The only person who didn’t respond positively to it was the clerk at the store, who was so near-sighted that he spent our whole interaction looking at his computer screen from a distance of about 4 inches so he could locate my package.

  36. ScramblesTDethDealer Says:

    I’ve been trying to get better about this lately anyway, so I consciously tried harder today.

    Aside from one individual who was audibly talking to himself as I walked by, I did my best to make eye contact with everybody. Roughly half of the people I walk by seemed to avoid eye contact all together, the other half would smile, nod or offer some friendly greeting. I’m going to assume this is because I live in a suburban area.

  37. Susan Cooper Says:

    Ok, here goes. When I looked at someone in the eyes I couldn’thelp but smile. When that happened they always smiled back. I had forgotten the fact that I used to do that. Revisiting that was really fun. :)

  38. Easyebes Says:

    This assignment is something I certainly need to work on (it becomes very apparent when you pay attention to what you’re doing). From what I’ve seen other places online, strong eye contact is a foundation for other skills and affects the way people deal with you. I am curious to see how the Homework assignments build up and where this is going. Cheers, Julien!

  39. seif Says:

    I made it, I is very hard with women but it did it. I also made this poster and printed infront of my desk as a reminder.
    https://dl.dropbox.com/u/616034/iContact.png

  40. Thato Says:

    I looked into people’s eyes, I usually don’t find it very hard but I strangely this weekend, because I was conscious of it, I found it a struggle. There was one instance where someone gave me a death stare, was very quick to look away from that person lol!

  41. Alden Says:

    Honestly I’ve done this many times before, and I’d admit it’s towards really hot girls.

    And sometimes they do smile back. That’s awesome.

    This homework ironically, can be very dangerous from where I am. There have been cases of hooligans starting fights due to starring incidents. People actually died before.

  42. Adam Says:

    I practised this over the weekend and today on the way to work. some people smile, others look away then look back. yet others give you that “peripheral look”, the look almost past you with a quick check to see if you are looking at them. interesting stuff.

  43. Azzurra Camoglio Says:

    I always do, as part of my lifestyle, not as a homework.
    And as a plus, I smile.
    Most of the people are surprised, but a lot of them smile back. And most of them find the situation funny or interesting.

    It´s also the best solution you can use if you want to avoid that people look at you in an offensive way just because you are tattoed.
    ;0)

  44. Alex Says:

    I almost always do this, to the extent that I consciously tried to stop for a while because I thought perhaps it came across as flirtatious. But I’m over that ;-) and now think it can be a way of showing someone respect e.g. I always think it’s very rude not to make eye contact with someone who is serving you e.g. a waiter/waitress or a shop assistant. It somehow implies that they’re not worth acknowledging.

  45. Caleigh Says:

    I figured it out a while ago that I must look crazy half the time since I focus on a person’s lips when they’re speaking. Being hard of hearing will do that :p Eye contact with a random stranger with no speech involved? DONE. Especially if he’s cute :p

  46. Lithia Says:

    I practised this homework today while going for a run in a small forest. I got so many smiles! The majority of the people I saw looked away, but some of them glanced back for a while and some even smiled. This was so pleasant, and I will try to make it a habit. Thanks for making my run. :)

  47. margie clayman (@margieclayman) Says:

    Here is a fun fact for you to ponder.

    When you’re 4’5, no matter how outgoing you are, making eye contact is pretty darned challenging. Those eyeballs are way the heck over my head. When someone meets my eyes, they are going a bit out of their way. I always strive to return the favor.

  48. Kara Says:

    This is SO MUCH FUN and even if you don’t have the confidence yet…people will think you do!

    I started playing this game at work 2 years ago when I first started my grown up job, mostly because I needed something to keep me entertained while walking around the office.

    The goal is to maintain eye contact for as long as possible and see who looks away first…if you are feeling really gutsy add a smile. It was fun to watch as most of my coworkers would return the smile and look away quickly.

    I think because of this….people think I am approachable and friendly…..goal was to not give them the creeper look / stare / grin….keep it light and friendly….besides as they say- you never know when someone needs a smile to brighten their day….it may be the only one they get all day.

  49. carol Says:

    I smile at everyone and make eye contact and I am thrilled when a spontaneous conversation happens. _The only problem I have encountered is my children get embarrassed.

  50. daniele Says:

    This is great! A family friend (retired cop) told me when we moved to the “bad” part of town to “look everyone in the eye, they’ll leave you alone if they think you can identify them in a lineup” lol which really did work even though I am notorious for not paying attention to my surroundings! Making eye contact and smiling with random people does also make the whole world seem less scary.

  51. Andrew Says:

    When they look away first I feel like I’ve won.

  52. Andrew Says:

    Granted, I am doing this in Korea, where everyone is easily embarrassed. And as I am a foreigner, they are already nervous of me.

  53. mog Says:

    Dude this website layout sucks..

    • IronFly Says:

      Oh come on, it’s refreshingly clean and simple. A breath of fresh air when most websites try to hard to be visually appealing. I love the layout!

  54. Abhishek Says:

    i will try this :)

  55. Scott L. Phillips (Baener O'Farrell) Says:

    I have two schools of thought regarding eye contact. The first is like the one explained above. I have been making eye contact with people I didn’t know for years. I’ve even challenged people to make eye contact back. The second is my ideal that if I am speaking with someone, and if they do not return eye contact I begin to look for flaws in their integrity.

  56. Murelle Says:

    I live in New York. Despite the volume of people I realize I do make quite a bit of eye contact with people already. But it wasnt always this way. Especially when I first entered corporate America, I was loath to look people in the eye. I think because I didn’t feel I fit in. But since taking on this exercise I realize, especially in work settings I make very direct eye contact today. I would venture to say it’s the only way to survive. It’s the only way people will take me seriously. In social settings I’ve observed that I’m far more relaxed about eye contact, with my friends etc, unless I have something serious to communicate. It seems similar in my intimate relationships with family or my boyfriend.

  57. Murelle Says:

    Oh and I’ve learned to avoid eye contact with men on the street Most of them get the wrong message!

  58. Ryan G Says:

    Been keeping an eye on people Julien. Compared to last time I did this as an experiment, it seems like people are making less eye contact these days. Would you agree?

  59. Dev Says:

    Was quite weird in the beginning, actually sounds a lot easier than it is. I constantly caught myself not wanting to make eye contact and kinda had to force it. By the end of the week, I enjoyed it. It created a better connection with random people and I definitely felt more in touch with them and even my friends.

  60. Steve Garfield Says:

    Hi Julien,

    Love this homework. I’m still working on it. Lots of people are looking down and away.

    Babies love to make eye contact and whip their heads around to keep sight of you until you are gone.

    When I catch someone’s attention I’ll respond with a smile.

    Fun.
    Thanks,
    –Steve :-)

  61. Alfredo Basilio Says:

    Hey Julien,

    Thanks for helping me to giving a fuck about the Lizard Brain, doing this actually was harder than I think, that’s because people avoid the eye contact, in every situation. I don’t know why. But I finally did it, and I want to keep it as an habit, it helps a lot with self confidence.

    Thank you!

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