Nowadays, having a conversation with anyone not being paid to or paying to talk to you has become a fight of man versus machine, man versus nature, or mere man versus mind. Whether the spoken-to individual is answering a text or email, is looking around at passing scenery, or simply has his or her mind wandering aimlessly, I have found that it has become an increasingly difficult task to get others to not only hear what one is saying but to actually listen. The key to ridding in-person conversations of the ubiquitous "Uh huh," or repetitive "Yeah?" is rehabilitating, as a culture, the long-lost art of making eye contact.
In many parts of the world, eye contact is considered disrespectful or even "too intense" for regular day-to-day discussions. For example, in China, eye contact is made as a sign of disrespect, to indicate an individual is angry or is meant to challenge another. It is appropriate for an individual of higher authority to make eye contact with a subordinate, but never the other way around. Similarly, in Japan, children are taught to carry a "soft gaze" toward another individual by looking at his or her neck and always avoiding the eyes, so as to not appear rude while also having one's attention directed toward that person. In the United States and much of the West, however, being able to maintain strong eye contact is just as—if not more—important than having a firm handshake, both for professional and personal situations, yet has been diminished to near extinction by generations of people too caught up in listening to respond rather than listening to understand.
Eye contact, although it can sometimes be too intense or intimidating for a given situation, conveys so much more than just one's attention. As the adage goes, "The eyes are the windows to the soul," because they show emotion, interest or lack thereof, the way others are impacted by what is being said, flickers of thought, intention, personability, and respect. Intense, unbroken eye contact can signify one's desire to persuade, or can indicate profound interest or, conversely, immense dislike for an individual or for the conversation in general, while softer, friendly eye contact can reveal one's positive feelings toward another, and can add a layer of trust and warmth to both work-related and friendly exchanges.
Among men and women, young and old, sustaining eye contact after initial introductions has become a rarity, but especially among young adults engaging with one another. It was not until I was on my first date with my current boyfriend, who made sure to maintain eye contact through each story I told and memory we laughed about, that I was able to differentiate between past exchanges with my peers and the one I was having at that moment. Few things are more disheartening than looking across the space between another individual and I and finding that he or she is mentally elsewhere, so being made to feel like what I was saying mattered, was interesting, or at least was worthy of undivided attention not only made the other person more appealing to me, but also significantly improved the quality of the interaction as a whole.
It has been found that those who do not make eye contact with others do so for a variety of reasons. Most often, an individual may be hiding something or masking his or her true feelings, but it was also studied that eye contact is avoided more when an individual makes a sarcastic comment rather than a sincere one because of the indirect, joking nature of what may be passive-aggression. The most common reason for a lack of eye contact, however, is based in insecurity, as people do not want others looking too closely at him or her so as to not see a lack of or minimal self-confidence.
Whether one chooses to believe the "windows to the soul" expression or not, it is apparent that, if anything, one's eyes do reveal more about one's character and an internal state of being than almost any other physical attribute. Individuals who are kind, compassionate, genuine, and who lead lives of integrity have somewhat of a radiant glimmer or sparkle in their eyes, while those who maintain blank, lifeless expressions are almost always commensurately (and unfortunately) severely conflicted inside as well.
As a culture, we must consciously decide to no longer fear the judgments or gazes of others, regardless of the level of authority, age, familiarity, or status. The more we choose to accept ourselves and work on our self-confidence and in-person communication skills, while also being open to others, the easier it will be to push self-created discomfort and awkwardness aside, and look what may be one of many people's greatest fears in the eye, without hesitation and maybe even with a little conviction, too.