What It Means When Someone Avoids Eye Contact When Talking

Making eye contact during a conversation is a key social skill that we develop early in life. Maintaining eye contact while talking has many benefits. For example, it can help you build rapport,[1] earn other people’s trust[2], and appear more attractive.[3]

But eye contact doesn’t always feel easy or natural. You’ve probably had some conversations with people who can’t or won’t look at you directly. In this article, we’ll look at the reasons why someone might make little or no eye contact during a conversation.

Sections

  1. Reasons someone might not make eye contact when talking
  2. What to do when someone doesn’t make eye contact

Reasons why someone might not make eye contact when talking

When you’re talking to someone who can’t meet your eyes, you might start to feel uncomfortable. You may start to wonder whether they’re hiding something or whether you’ve done anything to make them nervous. But there are many reasons why someone might avoid eye contact when talking. Here are some of the most common reasons someone avoids eye contact:

1. They have social anxiety

A reluctance to make eye contact is a common sign of social anxiety disorder (SAD).[4] People with SAD have an intense fear of being judged by others. When a socially anxious person makes eye contact with someone, they may feel under scrutiny,[5] which can make them even more self-conscious.

2. They are shy

Shy people feel anxious and uncomfortable in social situations, particularly if they are talking to people they don’t know very well. A shy person might avoid eye contact because they feel nervous about engaging with others. Shyness is similar to social anxiety, but it’s milder. It has less of an impact on a person’s life and isn’t classified as a mental health problem.[6]

Some shy people feel even shyer than usual around people they find attractive. If you’re on a date with a shy guy or girl, they may find it hard to make eye contact with you.

3. They feel nervous or uncomfortable

A lack of eye contact can be a sign of emotional discomfort. For example, someone who isn’t making eye contact with you might feel awkward about the current topic of conversation, or they might be nervous simply because they don’t know you very well and are anxious about making a good impression.

In some high-pressure social situations, such as a job interview or first date, even people who are usually confident may find it more difficult than usual to make eye contact. For example, if you’re on a date with a guy or girl and they aren’t making much eye contact with you, it might be a sign that they are nervous because they really want you to like them.

If you aren’t sure whether someone feels uneasy around you, look at their body language for other signs that they feel uneasy. For example, neck rubbing is a sign that they feel uncertain, threatened, or afraid.[7] You may find it helpful to read up on body language; check out our guide to the best body language books.

You may have heard that liars avoid eye contact because they feel too guilty or self-conscious to meet your gaze. But it’s important to know that a person who can’t or won’t make eye contact with you isn’t necessarily hiding something.

According to a 2020 review on the subject published in Frontier In Psychology, research has shown that although a lack of eye contact can signal nervousness, it isn’t a reliable sign of deception.[8]

4. They want to end the conversation

Eye contact is a sign of engagement and rapport, so if someone breaks eye contact, they might have lost interest in the conversation and feel ready to move on. If you sense that the conversation has slowed down and the other person keeps looking elsewhere, they may not be interested in talking with you any further.

5. They are deep in thought

If you’re having a conversation with someone who is grappling with information or struggling to put something into words, they might look away or into the distance as they recall a memory or try to process an idea. Looking someone in the eye requires effort. Breaking eye contact can improve a person’s concentration because they have one less distraction to deal with.[7]

6. They are angry or upset

When someone refuses to look at you, it can be a sign that they don’t want to talk. They may even want to ignore you completely. This may be because they are angry with you or because you have upset them and they want to avoid you for a while.

7. They have autism spectrum disorder

People with autism sometimes report that eye contact feels physically uncomfortable and invasive.[9] According to a 2017 study published in Scientific Reports, MRI scans show that people with autism have brains that are unusually sensitive to faces.[10] As a result, they may find that eye contact can trigger feelings of anxiety and a sense of being overwhelmed.

8. They have ADHD

People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) sometimes find it difficult to maintain eye contact if they struggle to focus on other people during social situations.[11]

9. They have experienced trauma

People with a history of trauma may struggle to make eye contact. Trauma can change the structure of the brain, making it more likely to interpret a normal direct gaze as a source of threat.[12]

10. They have different cultural norms

If you’re talking to someone who may be from another cultural background, be mindful that your interpretation of eye contact might not be the same as theirs.

As a general rule, people raised in Western cultures think that making eye contact during a conversation is a sign of positive interest and friendliness. But people raised in other cultures may follow a different set of social rules. For example, in some East Asian cultures, averting your gaze can be a sign of respect.[13]

What to do when someone doesn’t make eye contact with you

If someone doesn’t make eye contact with you, try not to take it personally. Don’t draw attention to their behavior. They are probably aware that they aren’t making much eye contact, and it’s not helpful for you to make them more self-conscious about it.

Here are some tips you can use when someone doesn’t make eye contact with you:

1. Try making the other person feel more comfortable

If the person you’re talking to is shy, nervous, or has social anxiety, they may start to make more eye contact if they think you’re enjoying their company. Try to put them at ease by smiling, listening carefully, validating their feelings, and giving them genuine compliments.

You might also like to read about how to stop making people feel uncomfortable if this is something that happens too often in your conversations.

2. Change the subject

If you’re talking to someone and they suddenly start avoiding eye contact, it may be a sign that the topic of conversation is making them bored or uncomfortable. You could try moving the conversation in a new direction, preferably to a neutral topic.

For example, if you’re on a date with a guy and he starts looking away more often when you ask him about his job search, it may be a sensitive issue that’s best avoided. You could try asking about his family or friends instead, or stick to a lighter topic like movies or hobbies.

3. Make it easy for them to leave

If you think someone can’t make eye contact with you because they want to leave but don’t know how, give them an opportunity to excuse themselves. They probably will be grateful for your empathy and kindness.

For example, if you’re on a date with a girl and you get the impression that she wants to wrap things up, you could say something like, “Wow, it’s past 10 p.m. already! Would you like to stay out a bit longer, or shall we call it a night?” or “I can’t remember whether you said you had something to do later on today? I’m having a great time, but I don’t want to make you late if you’ve got other plans.”

4. Offer to talk via another medium

Some socially anxious or very shy people prefer to talk over phone calls, texts, or emails rather than face to face. If you need to talk through a problem with someone, but they are so uncomfortable that they can’t look you in the eye, you could offer to message or call them instead. For example, you could say, “I know it’s awkward to talk about this issue, but we need to sort it out one way or the other. Can I email you, and we can go from there?”

5. Ask them why they aren’t making eye contact

If you are talking to someone you know well and they are unusually reluctant to make eye contact, you could ask them why. For example, if your friend can’t look you in the eye one day and seems determined to ignore you, you could say, “Hey, I’ve noticed that you keep looking away when I talk. Have I done something to annoy or upset you?”

Show references +

Viktor is a Counselor specialized in interpersonal communication and relationships. He manages SocialSelf’s scientific review board. Follow on Twitter or read more.

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