Eye contact avoidance tells others that we aren't interested in what's being sold.

Eye contact avoidance tells others that we aren’t interested in what’s being sold.

You can imagine that strangers walking about in public want to maintain a certain degree of separation between one another. This can and is achieved through eye contact. Reducing or preventing eye contact is a way to tell other people that they wish to maintain their space and privacy, and do not wish to communicate with others. Eye contact is a function of intimacy and has been referred to as part of the equilibrium state. That is, eye contact is one component that controls the degree of intimacy, the other is distance. By controlling one or the other, or both, we can control aspects of our equilibrium state, or intimacy, such as whether it will start at all, and how or when it should end. You can imagine that full intimacy can not happen at great distances although telephones and web technology attempt to do otherwise. Each fails miserably and does intimacy no justice.

As distance increases, intimacy decreases so you can imagine that strangers would feel freer to glare at others from say, across the road, but as they near the point at which they intersect they will drop or avert their eyes so as to eliminate intimacy. Therefore, that which gives permission for staring is distance and that which protects intimacy is eye contact. To have real intimacy both proximity and eye contact must be present. By this argument, city people aren’t rude at all, they are just doing what is normal, avoiding unwanted intimacy from strangers. Rural settings where there is a real possibility that you actually know the person on the street, or know a relative of the person is large, so intimacy is not only permitted by also safe. Eye contact in the city can send the wrong message to the wrong person inviting unwanted contact.

To illustrate this point imagine a women who is happily married but otherwise attractive to men. Upon entering a coffee shop, she turns the heads of men. When she notices that she is being watched, she averts her gaze and instead of making eye contact she ‘looks over the heads of others’ or possibly even looking down her nose at them by tilting her head backward showing disapproval. She sends a disinterested message, an “I’m taken.” If startled, she might inadvertently make eye contact with a stranger but she will instinctively drop her head and avert her gaze sideways, being careful to make no emotion facial expressions. In doing so, she avoids emitting the wrong message and therefore prevents unwanted solicitation. Men are often victims of assuming any eye contact is flirtatious, even if it happens by accident, thus women are generally careful of whom they look at directly. Some women learn this through a bad experience; others seem to know it instinctively. Men can test this out for themselves by trying to secure eye contact with women as they pass them on the street. Men are rarely able to secure eye contact from strangers and it’s usually not for a lack of trying.