Eye Contact: A Breeching Experiment

“It’s not polite to stare.” is a fairly common phrase we hear. It makes people feel uncomfortable. But why? Why do we have to feel uncomfortable that someone is ACTUALLY paying close attention to what we’re saying? Don’t we think it’s rude if they don’t look at us when we were talking?
Trying not keep eye contact in conversation is a subconscious thing now. If someone is talking to me, I look away every few seconds without asking why and never wondering why no one ever asked if I was thinking about something else instead of the person in front of me.
These thoughts have been around for awhile and when I read about breeching experiments in Sears & Cairns book (Chpt. 4) I realized what an awesome experiment constant eye-contact would be! We have assumptions on what is appropriate to do in a conversation and what is not.
I stared (hardcore) at my sister while she was explaining an assignment to me. Initially she hadn’t noticed because she had been looking away periodically as she was talking. However, while I responded to her, her breaks in eye contact became much more frequent and lasted longer. Finally she asked what I had been looking at, touching her face and glancing behind her. She looked a bit out of sorts. I asked her if “this” (referring to the staring) was weird. She shrugged and simply said, “It’s not polite to stare.”
Later I had asked her why the staring was weird. It made her self-conscious but she wasn’t exactly sure why. She had never put much thought into because it was just something she (and many other people, she noted) had always done.
“Unexamined assumptions~!”

Breeching, Perception

Eye Contact: A Breeching Experiment


9 thoughts on “Eye Contact: A Breeching Experiment

  1. I feel like this would be super fun. I’m tempted to try this on people, especially because people seem to do things like this to me a lot, particularly at work.

  2. Good and funny way of testing it I liked that you questioned your sister also. It is interesting how we get upset when we are questioned. It is definitely a good way of showing how upset it makes us when our assumptions are questioned.

    • But what are the underlying assumptions involved in ‘staring’? Is it about eye contact? Status? It’s like ‘it’s rude to stare’ but ‘you’re not looking at me you’re not listening.’ Where the heck is the middle ground? What’s being conveyed?
      Sounds like a fun way to annoy family members though …

  3. Chris Allen says:

    It may sound odd, but I still consciously think about proper eye contact when in conversation with people. When I was in elementary school, I remember there being someone, maybe a speech therapist or something, who was trying to explictly explain the right way to perform eye contact when talking to someone else.

    Why didn’t I pick that skill up on my own? I imagine it’s related to some of my atypical neurology. In face-to-face conversation, I think regularly and consciously about whether my eye contact is of the right amount and frequency. I’ve gotten pretty good at doing it ‘right’ I think, but perhaps I just didn’t pick it up at a young enough age for it to be completely natural. Your description of the way ‘improper’ eye contact bothered your sister makes me think of how much mine must have bothered the adults around me that they felt it was a big enough issue to require some kind of intervention.

    It makes me think about unexamined assumptions about cultural norms of this kind, and how hard it must be to integrate into a culture where those norms are very different. And how it weirds people out when you try!

    • I still remember trying to figure out these rules in middle school. I’m pretty sure I don’t have it down yet. Try this at a conference. If you don’t look at someone talking to you in a crowded public setting, how do they react?

  4. Mike Kruk says:

    Similarly, I usually try to make eye contact with the person/persons I am talking to and the responses I get are the people looking at their phones or texting or looking somewhere else and it drives me crazy! I can never tell if the person is actually hearing me or if I’m boring them so much that need to occupy themselves as to prevent them from falling asleep. I have recently tried to do the same to those talking to me, and I find them asking if anything is wrong or if I feel alright. There seems to be some sort of assumption about the “recieving and giving” part of eye contact that I am not understanding.

  5. Tom Montemurro says:

    you should definetly take the course psychology interviewing and or couseling. they make you have eye contact to show that you are showing interest in what your client is talking about. they do talk about how too much eye contact can make the person uncomfortable, but that is most likely because they are feeling judged. a healthy amount of eye contact is good. i reallly like this article.

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