EYE CONTACT Eye contact is a key nonverbal behavior. Looking and gaze aversion are typically used to initiate, maintain, or avoid communication. With a gaze, one can communicate intimacy, interest, submission, or dominance (Kleinke, 1986). Eyes are used to monitor speech, provide feedback, signal understanding, and regulate turn taking (Harper et al., 1978). One could say we meet people with our eyes or that “the eyes are the windows into the soul.” In contrast, gaze avoidance or breaking eye contact often signals anxiety, discomfort, or a desire not to communicate with the other person. In general, a person who violates the rules of eye contact will have a hard time communicating with others.
In typical noncounseling interactions, people make eye contact with each other (i.e., mutual gaze) in 28% to 70% of their interactions (Kendon, 1967), although usually for no more than 1 second at a time. Dyads typically negotiate when and how much to look at each other, although this is not a conscious negotiation and takes places at a nonverbal level. Too little eye contact can make one feel the listener is uninterested in the conversation and is avoiding involvement. By contrast, too much eye contact can make the other person feel uncomfortable, intruded on, dominated, controlled, and even devoured. Likewise, staring can feel rude, insulting, and threatening.
Norms for eye contact differ among cultures. In White middle-class North America, people tend to maintain eye contact while listening but look away when speaking, checking back from time to time to get feedback. In some Native American groups, sustained eye contact is considered offensive and a sign of disrespect, especially if by a younger to an older person (Brammer & MacDonald, 1996). Several cultural groups (some Native American, Inuit, or Aboriginal Australian groups) avoid eye contact, especially when talking about serious topics (Ivey, 1994). And, as noted in Chapter 5, a lack of eye contact signifies respect for an authority figure in some cultures.
FACIAL EXPRESSION Darwin (1872) speculated that before prehistoric people had language, they communicated threats, greetings, and submission through facial expressions. He believed that this shared heritage explains why all humans express basic emotions through similar facial expressions. He wrote,
the movements of expression in the face and body, whatever their origin may have been, are in themselves of much importance for our welfare. They serve as the first means of communication between the mother and her infant; she smiles approval, and thus encourages her child on the right path, or frowns disapproval. The movements of expression give vividness and energy to our spoken words. They reveal the thoughts and intentions of others more truly than do words, which may be falsified. . . . These results follow partly from the intimate relation which exists between almost all the emotions and their outward manifestations. (p. 366)
The face is perhaps the body part most involved in nonverbal communication because people communicate so much emotion and information through facial expressions (Ekman, 1993). People pay a lot of attention to facial expressions because they give clues about the meaning of the verbal message. In Shakespeare’s (1623/1980) Macbeth, Lady Macbeth says to her husband, “Your face, my thane, is a book whereon men may read strange matters” (Act 1, Scene 5, p. 17).
The following are some common facial expressions and possible meanings (remember that these are only possible meanings), according to Nirenberg and Calero (1971):
A frown might indicate displeasure or confusion. A raised eyebrow may suggest envy or disbelief. An eye wink might indicate intimacy or a private matter. Tightened jaw muscles may reflect antagonism. Eyes squinted might reflect antagonism. Upward rolling of the eyes may imply disbelief or exasperation. Both eyebrows raised may denote doubt or questioning.
Ekman and Friesen (1984) showed photographs of facial expressions to people around the world and found that several facial expressions had the same meaning across cultures. People around the world cry when distressed, shake their heads when defiant, and smile when happy. Even blind children who have never seen a face use the same facial expressions to express emotions as sighted people (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1971). In addition, fear and anger are expressed mostly with the eyes and happiness mostly with the mouth (Kestenbaum, 1992).
Although people in different cultures share a universal facial language, they differ in the manner and depth of expression of their emotions. For example, emotional displays are often intense and prolonged in Western cultures, whereas Asians display emotions of sympathy, respect, and shame but rarely display self- aggrandizing or negative emotions that might disrupt communal feelings (Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Matsumoto, Kudoh, Sherer, & Wallbott, 1988).
An important facial feature used in helping is smiling. Although smiling makes a person look friendly and can encourage exploration, too much smiling can be perceived as ingratiating or inappropriate when clients are talking about serious concerns. Helpers who smile excessively could be seen as not genuine, mocking the depth of clients’ problems, or uninvolved.