Eye Contact Anxiety: How I Handle Weirdness with People in Passing
I always thought the more eye contact made with people in passing, the better. And there was something wrong with me for hating it. So I pushed through my eye contact anxiety, looking people in the eye when I really didn’t want to. Strangers on the street, shoppers in the grocery store, coworkers in the hall.
It was the friendly thing to do. The normal thing to do. The right thing to do.
So when their eyes didn’t meet mine, I got offended. Why didn’t they notice me? Worse, why were they avoiding me? What wrong vibe was I giving off?
But then when their eyes did meet mine, I got uncomfortable. Should I pair it with hello? What about a smile? When was it okay to look away?
Forget it, I thought, and so began a period of eye contact avoidance. Only to be followed by feelings of guilt and isolation.
Forget it, I thought, and returned to my previous ways, seeking eye contact I didn’t want but thought appropriate.
Until that proved to be too much. Appropriate or not, making eye contact with people in passing was more than I could take.
And so on, the cycle repeating over the long, anxiety-inducing course of my lifetime.
Until six months ago.
How I got a handle on my eye contact anxiety
In June, I took a job in a small office space where I pass the same dozen or so people in the hall several times a day.
From day one, I decided I was going to get it right – eye contact all the way! In response, I was mostly met with distant stares; a looking past me.
I knew what that meant. They didn’t like me and we wouldn’t be friends. Only it didn’t mean that. Later that same day, they’d talk to me in the breakroom or they’d say goodnight on our way out the door.
Avoiding eye contact is not only okay, but necessary in a situation where you’re passing the same people multiple times a day.
Who has the energy for the alternative and what’s the point anyway?
If I’ve already acknowledged the presence of someone in the office, leave it at that and, unless I have business with them, give them the space to go about their day. (An opinion that seems to be corroborated by Ask a Manager’s Allison Green in answer to a reader’s question: Do people have to say hi in the hallways at work?)
After a lot of trial and error, I’m happy to report that I’m now one of them, mostly limiting eye contact in passing to good morning and goodnight.
There’s still discomfort in it with those who don’t follow even these bare-bones conventions, avoiding eye contact with me altogether, but I get by telling myself that’s their comfort zone. Maybe they’re even more uncomfortable with eye contact than me.
What I can’t believe is the answer to my eye contact anxiety was what I always wanted it to be: avoid eye contact with people in passing most of the time (if you need help in that department, see these 21 life hacks).
Why was I so convinced I needed more of something that felt so wrong to me?
At any rate, it’s a relief. Not only at work but everywhere else.
The more comfortable I’ve gotten avoiding eye contact with people I see every day, the easier it is with people I don’t know.
Not that I never look strangers in the eye; I’ve just stopped feeling bad when I don’t.
Is this the right solution for you – avoiding eye contact with strangers most of the time? I don’t know. In the end, it may not even be the right one for me.
Lack of eye contact with people in passing makes you feel more disconnected: study
In Jezebel’s “A Non-Creepy Reason to Make Eye Contact with Strangers,” Anna North cited a study at Purdue University that supports the benefits of making eye contact with people in passing:
“Researchers had volunteers walk around campus at Purdue University, interacting with passersby. Or not interacting.
“Sometimes they’d make eye contact with their subjects, sometimes they’d make eye contact and smile, and sometimes they’d just gaze at a point past the subject’s ear, ‘looking at them as if they were air.’
“Then another researcher followed up with each subject immediately afterwards, asking, ‘Within the last minute, how disconnected do you feel from others?’
“The ones who got eye contact felt less disconnected than those who got the air-stare.”
Organized eye gazing to the rescue
The benefit of making eye contact with strangers is so potentially great that there’s an entire movement organized around it – The Human Connection Movement, wherein they organize actual eye gazing meetups.
Australian writer Kimberly Gillan took part in one of these meetups, eye gazing with Helen, one of the meetup’s organizers:
“It felt like she was asking me for something intimate and I hesitantly took a seat. My inner control freak struggled with the lack of rules and as much as I wanted to be as Zen and floaty as Helen, I had to fire questions at her: ‘So how do we do this? How long do we hold it? How does it end?’
“She patiently explained that the average eye gaze is held for two to five minutes and usually ends with a smile, a look away or an embrace whenever the desire strikes.
“She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, so I followed suit and when I opened my eyes, I got lost in hers….
“Helen broke the staring by suddenly reaching forward for another tight embrace and whispering that I had beautiful eyes, then we sat together for a few minutes reflecting on the experience.
“I felt so much more comfortable with her than I would have if we’d met and launched into typical small talk about careers and suburbs and hobbies.”
As someone with social anxiety (and someone who is a human) staring into a stranger’s eyes for 2 to 5 minutes sounds pretty horrific.
Maybe it’s the organized nature of the eye gazing that makes it bearable.
Consider this real-world example of an impromptu eye gazing in which the woman literally couldn’t stomach eye contact with a stranger for more than 2 to 3 seconds.
On second thought
In this video, vlogger Ellellevlog shares the story of making eye contact with strangers on the platform when she was on a slow-moving Metro train inching its way into the station.
“I made eye contact with a guy on the platform and we kind of looked into each other’s eye for a solid, like, two, three seconds before I physically felt it in my stomach and I had to look away. It felt so uncomfortable to be looking directly into a stranger’s eyes and to acknowledge, I’m looking at you, you’re looking at me, we both know we exist and were gonna pay attention to each other and were gonna look into each other’s eyes. It was the weirdest thing.
“So, for the next few seconds I just sort of avoided eye contact with people as I thought, why was it so weird that looking into someone’s eyes made me physically feel uncomfortable? So I tried to do it again….
“I tried to look into people’s eyes and, honestly, as soon as I caught their gaze, their eyes darted. Dart, dart, dart. Like, everyone. It was instantaneous. And it got me thinking, like, how often do you actually look at strangers? I probably don’t really look into my friend’s eyes that closely either but a stranger?
“I started paying attention to the people around me on the Metro. Everyone’s sort of looking to the side, looking to the ground, looking at their phone. No one is actually acknowledging that there are other people around them. How are you supposed to meet people? How are you supposed to make friends? How is, ya know, ‘A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met’ supposed to turn into a friend if you don’t even look at people anymore?”
Maybe this story speaks to the need for eye-gazing events. Exposure therapy, if you will. Or, taking a cue from Anna North in “A Non-Creepy Way to Make Eye Contact with Strangers,” maybe it speaks more to the need for picking your eye-gazing battles:
“While making eye contact with passersby on your college campus might give you a warm feeling of connection, making eye contact with every single goddamn person you pass on the subway stairs might just drive you insane.”