All in a gaze

In the cliché of popular culture, the eye is ‘the mirror of the soul’, and archaic cultures believe in the magical powers of the ‘evil eye’. Such views epitomise the great social significance of gazing behaviour. Semiotic functions of the eye and of visual interaction have been explored by cultural anthologists, social psychologists, linguists, and many other interdisciplinary researchers in non-verbal communication.

Gazing behaviour is one of the most impressive examples for illustrating meta-communicative axiom of ‘talking without talking’. In social interaction, both gazing and not gazing at the other person may be equally communicative. Communication by gazing has been analysed according to three major variables: frequency, duration, and gaze direction (a one-sided gaze, mutual gaze (eye contact), gaze shift, one-sided and mutual omission and avoidance of gaze).

Apart from these studies in eye movements and the research in eyebrow behaviour, the eyelids and the pupils are two further domains of potential semiotic significance in gazing. Little research has been done into the significance of lid movements but studies on pupillary reactions, claiming that pupil dilation and constriction can be interpreted as an index of the degree of emotional arousal and interest, have caused a vivid debate.

In verbal interaction, the emphatic function of the gaze lies in its monitoring role in the initiation and maintenance of conversation. For example, it has been shown that the avoidance of eye contact in conversation is an index of the speaker’s desire to continue speaking, while the prolonged looking at another person is a signal for this person to speak next.
Conducted tests in which photographs of eyes isolated from the rest of the face were presented to test persons showed a significant agreement in the evaluations of emotions such as pleasure, surprise, and anger. Such gazes testify to the expressive function of looking behaviour.
Like other facial signals, gaze has both a biological and a cultural basis. Phylogenetically, staring eyes are a threat signal for many animal species. For several primate species, the glance has been shown to be a signal by which social dominance is established or strengthened. In human cultures, the motif of the evil eye seems to be an archetypical pattern of a threat signal. Cultural differences in gazing behaviour appear in both frequency and length of eye contact. These differences show that looking at each other is socially more acceptable in some cultures than in others.