I hate to make eye contact. This might be an East Coast thing, a Boston thing, or maybe just an oh-god-I-forgot-to-put-on- mascara-this-morning thing. Even if I’m talking to you, I will probably not look directly at you, and it has nothing to do with the fact that I don’t like you; it’s just me. Besides, nobody cares, right?
Wrong. Eye contact and other forms of body language are the primary means by which most people interact and communicate. On average, body language makes up 55 percent of your response in a conversation, while the actual words only count for about 7 percent. The other 38 percent comes from “paralanguage,” or those little sighs, pauses and “likes” you throw in when you don’t know what else to say. You don’t need to be a math major to realize that whether you’re facing an interview or trying to flirt with that cute girl from your lit class at the Keg, what you say isn’t nearly as important as how you say it.
All Eyes On….Me?
Eye contact is one of the most obvious methods of nonverbal communication, and it’s something each one of us uses all day, every day. Even without intending to, we use our eyes to say everything we don’t want others to hear. For example, when we’re uninterested or trying to be inconspicuous, we avert our eyes; but, when talking to someone we like (you know — “like like”), we make eye contact far more often, and for longer stretches of time. This phenomenon isn’t usually calculated or intentional; it just happens.
But eye contact can be a tricky game. At Northwestern, we have an all-too-familiar relationship with awkwardness in almost any given situation. How do we prevent this insidious force from sneaking into the most innocent of glances?
For one thing, don’t stare. You’ve heard how a group of people can only sit in silence for seven seconds before someone feels compelled to break it. Visual interaction works the same way. Generally, people can maintain eye contact for up to seven seconds before someone feels (you guessed it!) awkward and looks away. This doesn’t mean you should avoid looking at people at all; it’s fine, albeit a little sketchy, to ogle your TA, but make sure he doesn’t catch you in the act.
Of course, if someone spends five minutes talking about their intestinal operation, or that time their boyfriend got a rash in a creative place, there’s no way you’re still going to be looking at them and smiling by the end. You might not even be in the room anymore.
Sara Mountjoy-Pepka, an ‘07 SESP/Music graduate, can’t maintain eye contact with someone if she feels uncomfortable. “If someone’s talking about something I don’t want to hear, or don’t want to think about, I can’t look at them at all,” she said. “I just look at the floor and hope they stop.”
While there are some situations where looking away is a survival mechanism, blatantly ignoring someone can be just as obvious as staring. Looking at the floor, your dirty fingernails, or the overwhelming amount of reading on your syllabus won’t make you invisible. It’ll just make you seem antisocial. This strategy is perfect if you actually want people to get this impression of you. I have a friend who does this; she completely ignores anyone who tries to talk to her in class. But even such calculated hostility can backfire, like the time she refused to look at a boy trying to talk to her, only to realize (after he walked away) that he had been cute. Oops.
It’s There. You Just Can’t See It.
Picture this, if you will: Girl #1 very publicly made out with Girl #2’s roommate’s ex-boyfriend at a party last Friday (Still with me? Good. You learned well in junior high.). On behalf of her slighted roomie, Girl #2 is not happy with Girl #1. They run into each other downstairs at Norris and talk for a few minutes, during which Girl #2 is obscenely polite. She asks about classes and how cheerleading is going. The boy is not mentioned. No blows are exchanged.
If you didn’t know the story, could you even tell she was angry?
Maybe. Social situations like this one are hard to interpret, because there are so many factors that influence how we behave. It could be that Girl #2’s crush was standing only a few feet away; God forbid she be anything but perky and friendly within earshot. Or maybe they have too many mutual friends, and getting in a real fight would only make things worse. Even though we’ve all seen or been in this situation before, it’s impossible to know exactly what’s going on. But there are ways to convey (or hide) anger, even when you think nobody will notice.
“I notice that when girls are mad, a lot of the time they’ll lean away from each other,” Weinberg sophomore Kelly Jandro said. “I know when I’m angry with someone, I try to stay as far away from them as I can. I definitely don’t want to look at them. I try not to show them how mad I am.”
But does this work? Can you really conceal emotion so easily? Of course you can’t. Why not? It’s hard to pinpoint, but in the same way that you find yourself lapsing into little physical tics when you feel strong emotions, other people’s brains are attuned to notice these actions. If we couldn’t read the body language of others, there’s no way we’d ever be able to communicate.
“I think it’s easier to identify anger through body language than any other emotion,” Medill senior Marcy Farrey said. “I’m sure people can tell when I’m mad.”
We all know the most obvious means of showing anger: clenched jaw, sharp movements, short sentences and just plain frowning. These are easy (and sometimes fun) when you’re having an all-out fight, but they don’t work so well when you’re trying to be incognito. A classic example of slightly more subtle “mad” body language is posture.
“I’m sure I’m a little more stiff when I’m angry,” Farrey said. “I have my back straighter, and I look more formal.”
As college students, we probably couldn’t sit up straight in class unless someone glued us to the backs of our chairs (even then, the engineers would probably find a way to wiggle out of it. The rest of us would be screwed.). We don’t listen to our mothers when they tell us to stop slouching, but we do listen to our subconscious.
Angry people tend to tense their muscles, which naturally forces them to have better posture. You might not be aware of this, but next time you’re furious at your professor for assigning 200 pages of reading for tomorrow, look at yourself in a mirror. Do you usually look that tall? We short people should start being angry all the time — it might give us an extra inch or two.
That Wasn’t An Accident
Obviously, body language varies across cultures and genders. Folded arms for a girl don’t mean the same thing as they do for a guy (“I’m uncomfortable” vs. “I’m confident”). It’s important to remember this distinction when you’re trying to find meaning in someone else’s gestures. Don’t think that his shrug means he’s not interested in you, or hates you, or thinks you smell like tapioca. It might be nothing more than a shrug.
However, actions do speak louder than words for the female gender. We lucky females are inundated with thousands of sources that tell us what certain gestures mean, or how to act to make him (you know, Johnny Football hero) like you. Girls have Cosmo, Oprah and He’s Just Not That Into You to instruct us how and where to stand to snag the attention of that waiter with the gorgeous blue eyes. With all these voices shouting over each other, it’s no surprise that most girls eventually figure out how to construct and manipulate body language to say what they want it to say.
This isn’t to imply that all girls are manipulative robots without genuine emotions and reactions, or that guys can’t also consciously alter their body language if they want. It’s just worth keeping this in mind the next time the girl sitting next to you in lecture touches your knee. Maybe she isn’t just trying to steal your wallet after all.