Are Eyes The Windows To The Soul?

When we meet a random person’s gaze on the streets, we often hold it for a few seconds, half-smile, or immediately avert our eyes elsewhere without so much as a blink.

When we meet their gaze, we tend to think: Are you going to bump into me? What are you looking at? But the other person may or may not be thinking the same thing – eye contact is interpreted differently among cultures.

Eyes let us look into windows of new worlds - sometimes | Weekly Photo Challenge: Window. Photo: Mabel Kwong

Eyes let us look into windows of new worlds – sometimes | Weekly Photo Challenge: Window. Photo: Mabel Kwong

The saying goes, “eyes are the windows to the soul”. Can we figure out a person’s personality just by looking into their eyes? Maybe. Maybe not.

Looking someone straight in the eye is a mark of respect in the Western world. It doesn’t matter if you’re a young person looking up to an older person or a mature person having a conversation with someone much younger. The general consensus here is that holding the other person’s “Look at me” gaze while talking to them means you’re listening and telling the truth.

On the other hand in many Asian cultures, brief bursts of eye contact are considered polite. To some Asians, sustained eye contact can be a scary thing – the person looking them directly in the eyes comes across as aggressive, threatening and imposing. In the Western world, Asians who make little eye contact time and time again are mistaken as shy people when they really aren’t and their behaviour is due to cultural attributes.

And there is always, always the possibility someone is good at acting, good at holding someone’s gaze while telling tall tales on the tip of their tongue. Eyes can be indeed deceiving.

There is every chance some Asians occasionally find themselves guilty of staring intently at non-Asian eyes. When I moved back to Melbourne from Asia, for a while I was mesmerised by light-coloured Caucasian eyes and ogled at them. Perhaps some Asians have “white fever”, can’t help but stare and get lost in blue, green or grey sets of Caucasian eyes – and maybe stereotypically assume just because Caucasians are “pretty”, they are classy and esteemed.

Once again on the subject of minimal eye contact, admittedly it’s sort of difficult to read a person’s character if they have a pair of sunglasses slapped over their eyes. When the sun’s shining in Australia, sunglasses or sunnies are all the rage. Yes, they shield our eyes from the harsh sun but it can be hard to tell if a person wearing them is listening or looking at you. I’ve always wondered if people wearing sunnies walking towards me in my path do ever see me.

Then there are some of us who regard those with sunnies on as suspicious and shady people to avoid. I guess this is usually so when we see people wearing them indoors or at night, times when sunnies are usually unnecessary.

Our eyes function in two ways: eyes let us look at others, and eyes let others look at us. When we’re with friends or people whom we love or are close with, regardless of race, eye contact with one another generally comes naturally. We’ve known these people for a while, are comfortable around them and sometimes can tell exactly what they’re feeling – and they what we’re feeling – just by looking into their eyes.

With strangers, it’s hard to tell their thoughts or emotions simply from gazing into their eyes. We barely know one another to make a judgment and eyes don’t tell the complete story of our lives.

Ultimately, it’s fair to say eyes are hazy, tinted windows to the soul in many moments. Or maybe only.

Do you hold or avoid eye contact with those around you? Do you wear sunglasses?

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29 thoughts on “Are Eyes The Windows To The Soul?

  1. Hurts my eyes not to wear sunnies in the Australian summer. I also like wearing them because it makes it easier to look at people without them thinking I am a stalker. Some people just have an interesting look so I like to look at them.

    I think there is a degree of a universal language with eye contact. For example, I am told if you look directly into a chimpanzee’s eyes it will probably hit you in the face. I know dogs find it threatening. An alpha dog will stare down a lower dog. My dogs have always looked away nervously if i have tried to stare into their eyes. For humans, I think it is only people that are close that are comfortable with direct and sustained eye contact.

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    • My eyes don’t hurt when I look around outside in the Australian summer, maybe I’m just lucky. True, with sunnies you can ogle and stare at others and most likely they won’t notice because your eyes are shaded. But I do this anyway without sunnies. People can think of me however they like 😛

      Staring into someone’s eyes can make the other person feel scared in most situations, I think. When you stare at someone, a lot of the time they get the impression they have done something wrong or displeased you in some way. Most of the time when we stare, I reckon we are curious about finding more about a person, or are confused about something in regards to them.

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  2. There is something very special with eye contact… Different cultures handle it differently, as you mention, but the first glance ~ the second or two of seeing something in the other persons eyes is a glimpse into their character. Wonderful post Mabel.

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    • Thanks, Dalo. Agree that the first glance does leave an impression with many of us. In the first few seconds you look into a person’s eyes, most likely they are not anticipating you looking at them at all and at this moment they are probably at their most vulnerable – and you get a good glimpse of their true character. We really are never prepared when someone makes eye contact with us, so we give away a bit of ourselves through our eyes within the first few seconds of looking at them.

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  3. Pingback: Weekly Photo Challenge: Window (9) Rainy View | What's (in) the picture?

  4. Eye contact and also the handshake in China are something really different from my known European world. I am used to the steady eye contact and firm handshake while at meetings I feel in China I am being ignored (everyone like the wall behind me very much or the floor) and most handshakes feel like dead fish. Ofcourse there are also exception especially in the handshake section were I wonder sometimes if they try to rip out my hand after first crushing it.

    And whats more, I believe my father in law has never really looked me straight in the face. On the streets some Chinese seem to be on a whole different level when it comes to looking/ staring at someone (laowai 老外) and I guess it is also because it is on the open street and not a confined room where they cant’t escape me 🙂

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    • When you are in a roomful of colleagues who more of the time are looking at their desks or the walls you get the impression they are daydreaming. I am guessing that if someone of Asian descent is giving a slideshow presentation, he/she would want the audience to look at the slides and not him – never making eye contact. The handshake scenario you describe is so true. I don’t know why, but perhaps it has something to do with some Asians’ aversion of physical contact.

      Could be a cultural thing that your father in law doesn’t look you straight in the face. So long as the both of you can carry a conversation, that would be an indicator of communication between the both of you. I think you’re right in suggesting the Chinese are more bold looking at (white) foreigners on the streets – if the foreigner approaches them, they can run! 🙂

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      • I guess it is both a cultural and a personal thing for my father in law. I asked my wife about it and she said that he never really looks people in the eyes but also that this behaviour is pretty common in her city/ area (Xi’an/ Shaanxi).
        I don’t know if its really “common” there or it may be also just due on how my wife perceives the everyday situation. I personaly never realized it except of course with my new dad as I have spent pretty much time with my in-laws.

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        • Yes, there is definitely a personal aspect to the topic of eye contact. Some people who are naturally confident might not have problems looking at others straight in the eye. On the other hand, those who are shy or suffer from anxiety or depression might find making eye contact with others more challenging. So it is not just a cultural thing. Personality plays a big part as well, and maybe even more so than culture sometimes.

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  5. Sunglasses are important to protect eyes from harsh sunlight. It always blew my mind when Asians some Asians I came across refused to wear sunglasses. Harsh sunlight can cause cataracts!… I think eyes say a lot, but they say more when we know someone well than with strangers. It is very true that different cultures see eye contact differently; it’s just one more way that this world is so interesting!

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    • That is true. Sometimes the sun is really bright and it hurts our eyes. I don’t think the sun is as strong as it is in the States or here in Australia than in Asia, so perhaps many Asians don’t really know about the harmful effects of the sun on their eyes. Eyes are very interesting. They give off a different impression depending on a person’s facial expressions – narrowing one’s forehead, opening their eyes wide, winking…all that makes us very interesting people in a very interesting world 🙂

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  6. I don’t wear sunglasses, hate them, ad have worn eyeglasses for most of my life…this is probably why I dislike sunnies so much! I have difficulty with eye contact especially if I feel attracted to a person of the opposite sex, but also when dealing with authority figures. I was never taught about the importance of eye contact during my upbringing and haven’t yet mastered this skill…

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    • I too get a bit edgy and nervous when an authoritative person like the police looks at me. Don’t know why, but these authority figures always have grim expressions. Not a huge fan of sunglasses myself too as they tend to never fit my face properly. Eye contact can take a while to get used to especially if we’re shy, or have anxiety. I’m sure if you keep practising, soon enough you’ll be able to look everyone in the eye 🙂

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  7. Haha I don’t avoid eye contact though I have to admit that there I times that I do feel uncomfortable when the gaze gets too long when it’s with someone I don’t consider a friend. I do wear sunglasses, and a lot but it has nothing to do with eye contact, its because I have prescription lenses and I see better with them and without them, lol,.. plus when its sunny they’re cooler than normal glasses 😉

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    • Who doesn’t get uncomfortable when a stranger or acquaintance stares at us too long? That person might be looking at us for all the wrong reasons and we have very right to feel uneasy 🙂 Prescription lenses sound cool! I wear contact lenses though, but I have been thinking of switching back to glasses.

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  8. Interesting to hear the cultural differences, you are so right about westerners, we are brought up that way, I will have to remember this. Funny what you say about the sunglasses, I have to wear them outside, or I can’t see, but I always take them off when I come inside.

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    • The Australian sun can indeed be very bright. Sometimes I do realise how dull and darker winter is compared to summer. I do notice that a lot of people who wear sunglasses take them off immediately when they go indoors. I’ve always thought that this was proper sunglasses etiquette and not because we can’t see inside with them on – it’s just like how we would take off our sun hats when we’re inside or visiting an age old monument.

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  9. Eye contact is important I believe but in certain African cultures it is considered rude to look directly in an elder’s eyes when talking. I think in Chinese culture we do encourage eye contact and if someone doesn’t maintain eye contact they are either nervous, rude, disrespectful or lying. I know that some people when they talk to me they don’t look me directly in the eyes; either they are rude or (sometimes I get the suspicious feeling they are scared of me or they don’t like me, for whatever reasons, I don’t care). Mencius said you must look someone directly in the eye at all times when talking. And sometimes the eyes give away how a person is feeling…and sometimes not.

    For example when I am not smiling, just in a neutral or pensieve disposition, people (and I mean a lot of people) quickly assume that I’m stressing or I am sad. And this really pisses me off and they don’t understand that if you insist that someone is upset when they are not – it will really annoy that person.

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    • I heard too in African cultures it is not respectful to look directly into elders’ eyes when speaking to them. Very true – sometimes when people are scared or hiding something they won’t look you in the eye. And this most certainly applies to all cultures and it’s more a personality thing. I too wear a neutral expression with eyes unfocused a lot and people call this my “sour-face” and think I’m not happy. Which is really not true. I like to think deeply about things and I call this my “thinking face and eyes”.

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      • I agree, when I wear a neutral sort of expression people think I am sad or something. Sometimes people don’t look at someone when they’re talking to them is because they dislike them or feel disgusted about them. Sometimes when I talk to someone, they don’t stop what they are doing to look at me but talk while continuing with whatever they are doing. I think that’s rude. When I’m doing something and someone talks to me or ask me something I stop and maintain eye contact

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  10. Never use a single sunny sunglasses, my eyes is too handsome to hide on, hehehe
    i used to hold eye contact, especially with patients….
    it tell me the truth from the very beginning, mostly patients with severe toothborne pain will lie to get their pain relief by extraction which is actually unappropriate to do at that moment…
    thanks God for t “eye would never lie”

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    • Hahaha! If you think you have great eyes, yes, show them off! No need to hide them behind sunglasses 🙂

      In your case as a dentist, you’ll definitely need to make eye contact with your patients. As you said, you need to make sure they’re telling the truth! And by looking at your patients directly in the eye, hopefully you’re gaining their trust too.

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  11. Pingback: Weekly Photo Challenge – Window | Joe's Musings

    • That is so true. I expect those who are wearing sunnies to take them off when they are talking to someone they aren’t too familiar with. If it’s a good friend, then perhaps that’s okay. But who knows if that person wearing dark glasses (when you’re not) is actually looking at you and paying attention, it’s anyone’s guess.

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