What Does It Mean When You're Talking to Someone & They Can't Look You in the Eye?

Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images

Americans consider eye contact an important non-verbal form of communication, but many people may not offer a direct eye gaze for many reasons. Anxiety or a cultural difference may reduce the likelihood of some people making eye contact with you. To enhance your communication with others, consider the various reasons why people avert their gaze. While it may be common for you, direct eye contact takes on a different meaning with others.


People with anxiety issues may not make eye contact with you. People with social anxiety in particular are less likely to look you in the eyes. This form of anxiety makes people fearful to communicate and interact with others for fear of embarrassment. According to the Social Anxiety Institute, their unwillingness to make eye contact can manifest as simple avoidance of direct eye gaze or, at the extreme, a fear that they have an evil eye, which makes others uncomfortable.

Cultural Differences

A lack of eye contact may be due to a difference in culture. In Western culture, eye contact indicates attentiveness, but in other cultures, it may show disrespect. Hispanic, Native American, Asian and Middle Eastern cultures all see eye contact as disrespectful. People from these cultures are not likely to look you directly in the eyes. When interacting with these people, acknowledge the cultural difference and do not make eye contact necessary. They are still listening, even if not looking at you directly.

Low Self-Esteem

People may avoid eye contact with you due to low self-esteem. Many believe eye contact is a marker of confidence and assertiveness. For those who combat low self-esteem, eye contact is hard to maintain. They may not feel assured enough to sustain long periods of eye contact. They may also look down or speak with a low tone. Assuage their fears by accepting their nonverbal behavior and offer affirmations and support.

Busy Thinking

When people avert their gaze, they may be thinking. Maintaining eye contact consumes some of people's cognitive resources. By breaking a gaze, they are better able to concentrate and formulate answers to questions. Instead of being a sign of disrespect or dishonesty, someone who won't make eye contact may be trying to come up with thoughtful answers to your questions. When asking questions, give your communication partner time to process their answer. Looking away does not have to mean he is avoiding the question. Rather, he is likely trying to come up with the best answer and looking away facilitates this process.