Why we look away

Author: John Monczunski

An interesting thing happens when people talk to one another. They engage in an intricate dance with their eyes. Speakers repeatedly look at, then away from, the listener’s face. Listeners, on the other hand, generally maintain a constant gaze on the speaker, says Kathleen Eberhard, Notre Dame professor of psychology.

This shifting-glance conversational pattern has been explained as a turn-taking cue to alternate the role of speaker and listener. “As long as I’m not looking at you, you can’t take the floor,” the ND psycholinguist explains. “When I’m ready to give up the floor, I look back to you and my intonation falls, signaling it’s your turn to talk.”

Eberhard was surprised to find that when people tell a story they still alternate their gaze, even though storytelling rarely involves turn-taking. "Rather than offering the floor, a storyteller usually is seeking confirmation that the listener understands them,” the psychologist says.

Instinctively we know this, she says. “Listeners often give ‘back channel’ feedback, such as a head nod, that says, ‘Yes, I follow you.’”

Eberhard now is investigating why speakers look away in the first place. She says one obvious answer is that our minds are occupied, planning what we will say next. “So we look away to free up those cognitive resources, and once we have our next utterance we deliver the statement then look back to the listener.”

Supporting her contention, the ND psychologist has found a strong correlation between hesitation sounds such as “uhhhh” or “ummm” and the speaker looking away. These situations typically occur when people have difficulty formulating their next statement or if something is going wrong in the conversation, she says.

John Monczunski is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine.