Why do we make eye contact with strangers as we pass them?

Eye contact can be uncomfortable, but it's also an important part of social cohesion.

1st August 2018
Why do we make eye contact with strangers as we pass them? © Getty

Asked by: Samuel Chaabane, Hove

Eye contact is a fundamental part of human social interactions – even two-day-old babies prefer to look at those faces that are gazing straight at them. If someone is looking at you, it indicates social interest and a possible desire to communicate, but of course you cannot know if someone is looking unless you, in turn, attempt to meet their gaze. Hence why when we pass strangers we will often automatically glance at their faces.

A field study on a university campus in the US found that making eye contact with strangers leaves us feeling more socially connected, whereas if someone avoids our gaze, we are more likely to feel disconnected. This feeling is captured beautifully by the German expression ‘wie Luft behandeln’ – to be looked at as though air.

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