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Context

I am a male in my early 20s. My work requires me to frequently communicate face-to-face with customers that are often strangers to me. Because of this I tend to take good care of my appearance. I neatly trim my beard, put product in my hair and work out a few times a week.

When I'm in a conversation with a customer I pay attention to looking them in the eyes to show I'm paying attention to the conversation we are having. But lately something else has caught my attention.

When I'm the one talking I notice that the person I'm talking to switches between eye contact and looking at my mouth around every few seconds. While I'm not particularly an insecure person this can make me pretty unsure of whether (for example) I have something between my teeth or I'm distracting the person with the way I talk. While it doesn't particularly seems like it's distracting them, it does distract me from the topic of the conversation.

Question

How can I stop people from looking at my mouth when I talk, or is this happening unconsciously?

Extra

  • I'm sure there is actually nothing between my teeth
  • I have had braces so I think I'm eligible to say my teeth are 'pretty'
  • The conversations are always in my mother language (so no 'weird mouth movement')
  • 76
    Are you sure the people you're talking to aren't looking at your mouth to "lip read" so that they can better understand you? Maybe they're not hearing so well? – AllTheKingsHorses Mar 27 '18 at 10:38
  • @AllTheKingsHorses I can't imagine that's the case. This has happened with several different people. The conversations are also not in a noisy area. – Cartman Mar 27 '18 at 10:40
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    Throwing this out there... is the duration of eye contact you maintain excessively long? – user8357 Mar 28 '18 at 3:38
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    Or maybe the alternative question could be: How can I stop myself feeling uncomfortable when people are looking to my mouth during conversation? I mean, changing yourself can be more effective than attempts of changing others. Especially if there is nothing explicitly wrong with this particular thing. – miroxlav Mar 29 '18 at 12:23
  • 1
    Just speaking from personal experience, everyone does this without realizing it - especially when they are listening to an explanation. It seems from my experience to be the unconscious place to look when people are focusing intently on what is being said. – Geoffrey Apr 2 '18 at 8:28

12 Answers 12

145

Not everyone is comfortable with looking other people directly in the eyes for any length of time, even if the other person is friendly and well-presented. It is not something to take personally.

In these situations, a person's eyes may gravitate to something nearby but not in such a way to look disinterested. In this case it may be your immaculate beard that catches their attention. I'd advise against bringing it up in conversation in case it makes others even more uncomfortable. Try not to worry about it.

I'd also add if you're determined to look them straight in the eyes for the entire conversation, it will help if you briefly avert your gaze every so often too. It might vary by culture, but some can interpret a fixed glare as you coming across as too serious or intense. Again, it's nothing to feel personally worried over.

  • 15
    This Forbes article has some very clearly expressed information about levels of eye contact which might be useful if you are looking for references to back-up your answer. – Spagirl Mar 27 '18 at 11:06
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    Not to mention if the person is hard of hearing or deaf, they may be lip reading to help with comprehension. – TylerH Mar 27 '18 at 15:45
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    I'm not what you would call hard of hearing, but I do have trouble following people when they speak. It helps a lot if I augment what I hear with watching them move their mouth. In my case, it means I'm paying special attention to what you're saying. – am21 Mar 27 '18 at 19:09
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    @TylerH As a hearing impaired person, I do read lips to augment my hearing. And I only have a "mere 5%" hearing loss. Even with hearing aids, I'm likely to watch mouths out of habit, especially if there's a thick accent. – phyrfox Mar 27 '18 at 19:49
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    Actually, the triangular pattern from eye to eye and down to the mouth or chin is a pretty common friendly gaze. – insanity Mar 28 '18 at 12:09
72

I am one of those people who will switch between looking someone in the eye and looking at someone's mouth when they're talking to me. This is for a few reasons:

  • It helps me listen to what they're saying - As strange as this sounds, when I'm really concentrating on what someone is saying I find it easier when I'm watching them form the words than I do when I'm making eye contact with them. I tend to hear what they're saying better.
  • It avoids distractions - If someone is speaking to me and I'm making eye contact with them, I often get distracted with like: "Am I staring for too long?" "What if this person is uncomfortable with prolonged eye contact?"
  • I get uncomfortable with prolonged eye contact... - I will break eye contact when I get uncomfortable and don't want to appear rude by looking away from the person's face completely. Looking at their mouth is a compromise.

As it can be a subconscious act (it is for me), try not to let it bother you. There are no negative connotations associated with staring at your mouth rather than maintaining eye contact.

  • I mostly do it subconsciously. Every now and then I catch myself doing it. The reasons I've given above are ones I've come up with retrospectively. – Hammykins Mar 27 '18 at 11:45
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    For info, there is nothing strange about understanding people better when you look at them form the words with their mouth. Our brain legit uses the visual information from how people's mouths are moving to guess at what they're saying, and that informs what you hear them say. Look up the McGurk effect; it's an interesting auditory illusion based on this process. – Oosaka Mar 28 '18 at 12:22
  • @RozennKeribin I would say that it is stronger than merely helping you to guess what they are saying. The visual input outright overrides your auditory perception. Here's a YouTube video demonstrating the effect. – Derek Elkins Apr 2 '18 at 3:02
26

People will look at your mouth while you're talking for a variety of reasons:

  1. The person is hard of hearing or has an Auditory processing disorder, and they're looking at your mouth in an attempt to better understand what you're saying.

  2. The person is shy or otherwise uncomfortable with maintaining eye contact for the duration of the conversation.

  3. The person is attempting to create a greater sense of engagement with you (or is attracted to you) by using (consciously or subconsciously) the so-called "Triangle Technique"

Therefore I don't think that you should be looking for ways to stop this behaviour. Instead, accept it as part of being human.

  • Its more usually called "Auditory processing disorder" (or at least I percieve it so). But yeah, that's why I look at peoples mouths instead of their eyes. – Angelo Fuchs Mar 27 '18 at 13:14
  • @AngeloFuchs it's strange - about ten years ago I discovered that the phenomenon I'd experienced my whole life had a name: "aural dyslexia", and I'm certain there was a Wikipedia article on it, but I can't find any reference to it now I look for it... – Aaron F Mar 27 '18 at 13:19
  • No worries, I've heard "Aural dyslexia" as well but just seldom. "Auditory processing disorder" has a wiki article (that you could link to in your answer) and describes various subsets of this. – Angelo Fuchs Mar 27 '18 at 13:39
  • @AngeloFuchs thank you very much, I've done a quick edit. – Aaron F Mar 27 '18 at 13:52
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    Just to add a note, in my case i don't have APD but an audition loss (70% phonetic loss) on the left side and I too look at the mouth of whoever is talking to me like in case 1. I guess this is common in a wide range of hearing issues, so +1 for pointing for some issue or disorder. – JordiVilaplana Mar 27 '18 at 14:56
15

My brother has Asperger's. One of the things that they teach people with Asperger's who have trouble with social norms is that most people's gaze bounces back and forth between the eyes and mouth during a conversation. People with Asperger's have trouble making eye contact and will sometimes overcompensate by forcing eye contact for the whole conversation--this is perceived as unusual by most, like the person is staring at them. In other words, the behavior you see when people are listening to you is perfectly normal.

There appear to be other behavioral factors that go into how long people tend to maintain eye contact, see Scientific American's Eye Contact: How Long Is Too Long?. One that I have heard which is concomitant with my experience (though I have no idea if it is backed by study) is that people tend to maintain eye contact more when talking and less when listening.

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    I have Asperger's as well. I am also hearing impaired. I look like I 'm making eye contact, but I'm reading lips. that may be what people are doing with the OP – user4548 Mar 27 '18 at 14:36
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    While not "Asperger's" in the strict sense, I do fall on the autism spectrum, and I can tell you that the first paragraph is indeed the case for me sometimes, and it used to always be a problem for me as a kid. Usually, whether or not I can do eye contact for a long time depends on what else is going on in my mind. – gparyani Mar 29 '18 at 1:22
10

I'm sorry, but don't be so sensitive. There is no practical way to get people to look at your face the way that you want. People are going to interact and converse with others the usual way they are accustomed to and aren't going to respond well to any efforts to change that. Best you can do is not worry about it so much, or even at all. The only success I can imagine having is perhaps in teaching your own children to only look at your eyes when speaking. Forget about anyone else.

3

More than likely, they are uncomfortable with prolonged periods of eye contact.

I have a good friend who often glances at my forehead/hair line whenever I am speaking to him. Like you, I became somewhat annoyed with it. I did end up asking him why in a friendly tone and some laughter:

Me: Hey, just out of curiosity, is there a reason you glance at my forehead when we talk?

Friend: Oh, sorry! I didn't realize I did that.

I personally find myself looking past the person at something in the background after a few seconds of eye contact. For me, if the other person is continuously giving eye contact with no breaks, I feel obliged to match their eye contact and more uncomfortable in the conversation.

Since you are often communicating with strangers, don't ask them about it, because you may embarrass them. They likely don't realize they're looking at your mouth.

3

Just be honest and tell them that it makes you uncomfortable. Beware though, it might make them even more uncomfortable in the future when they try to lock eyes with you for an entire conversation.

2

Look Away

I agree with almost everyone else here. Some people are uncomfortable with eye contact and will look elsewhere to be more comfortable. I know I am and I do.

However, by the same token, if you're feeling uncomfortable, its reasonable to break face to face contact once in awhile. Turn your head to look out the window as you talk, look down at the document you're discussing, or even just look off in a different direction to suggest you're thinking deeply about the conversation. This takes some consideration and practice to not look awkward, but it is at least something within your control.

Additionally, this can also help to put certain people at ease, as they don't need to worry about how much eye contact they're making. It sounds like you're fairly good at reading your customers' body language, so keep an eye out if they seem a bit uncomfortable.

2

There are several good answers that explain why this might be happening. I suspect it's some combination of discomfort with prolonged eye contact and language processing (all sighted individuals make some use of visual cues to understand language, including looking at the speaker's mouth movements).

If you're really noticing this more now than you used to, there are a few possibilities for what's going on.

  1. It's always been this way, but you've just noticed and are therefore more sensitive to it. I'm sure you've had the experience of learning a new word or name, and then suddenly hearing it everywhere; this could be a similar phenomenon. If that's the case, you can probably solve the problem by simply noticing how often people (including you) look at other folks' mouths in conversation, and gradually getting used to the idea.

  2. Something has changed in the way you are speaking or in how your speech is perceived so that folks need to look at your mouth more for comprehension.

    • This could be because your mustache is a little longer, and obscuring your lips more than in the past. In this case, trimming a little shorter could help.
    • There could also be a change in the environment that makes it harder to hear, such as construction outside your window, new hardwood or tile floors instead of carpeting, or the heating/cooling vents being particularly noisy. If there is a noise or volume issue, adjusting your own volume and doing what you can to minimize outside noise should help.
  3. Possibly your customers have changed so that they are less comfortable with eye contact.

    • The amount of eye contact that folks are comfortable with varies by culture, so if you have seen a shift in your customer base this could be a factor.
    • There has also been some evidence that within high-eye-contact cultures, there is a current technologically-driven shift in eye-contact comfort. Specifically, people who spend more time on various devices and less time in face-to-face communication seem to have lower tolerance for eye contact than their same-culture peers.
    • In either of these cases, the solution is going to be to find a way to be comfortable with a different norm for eye contact between you and (some of) your customers. If you suspect this is happening with a specific customer, try reducing the amount of time you spend looking at their eyes; this may put them more at ease, and help both of you to be more comfortable with your interaction.

So what do you do if you think this is something you just need to get used to? Understanding what's going on may help some. Checking your teeth before you meet with a customer can also help relieve that fear, at least. You can also ask someone you trust to double-check that there isn't anything within your control going on that you may not have noticed (such as your volume having dropped for some reason).

Beyond that, you it can be helpful to give your customers something specific to look at, other than your mouth and eyes. Something like a brochure or product sample is ideal: You can talk to them about it, and you can both look at it while you're talking about it. Then, when you're just talking, if the eye-contact exceeds their comfort zone they have something "in context" to look at. Similarly, if you think they need less eye contact, it gives you a sensible place to look. In my research interviews I often use a shared screen and/or jotted notes for this purpose. If there isn't a good business-related option, you could also include some colorful art or desk toys in your office to draw the customer's eyes away from your mouth—just be sure they aren't so distracting that your customers end up not paying attention to you.

1

To be honest, it is probably your beard that they are looking at. In some cultures, beards are still a relatively new (or at least revived) fashion.

Of course we are not here to debate fashion, and beards tend to polarise opinion. But I would take some comfort in the fact that there are plenty of positive reasons why someone could be fascinated with your beard - that is to say their looking at your mouth/beard area does not instantly mean there is something weird going on like a piece of spinach in your teeth. Don't let it make you become overly self-conscious. They may like your beard, or be a bit envious of it if they can't grow one themselves. Also if the person is a stranger to you, don't ignore the possibility that they may have a hearing impairment and are relying on watching your lip pattern!

You shouldn't really worry if someone makes a passing glance at your mouth. It seems like you are noticing patterns, either that a lot of different people do it, or a few people you interact with persistently do it.

It may not be possible to completely stop looking there but there may be things you can do to reduce it.

Maintain good eye contact yourself.

We all allow our eyes to wander during conversation. Our eyes may impulsively look up when we access memories or use our imagination. Other people look around when they are thinking. Your breaking eye contact with another person may give them a window to look around too. Concentrating on eye contact may keep their eyes on yours.

Send a non-verbal message that shows them you noticed they were looking at your mouth.

If someone is persistently doing this to you, then you could potentially stop it by letting them know that you know. This could be done either by stopping what you are saying, or markedly slowing down your speech until their eye contact returns. Or you could frown. The drawback of this is that you may come across a little passive-aggressive, depending on how the other person feels about the behaviour. This also ignores the possibility that they may be lip reading.

Say something.

If you really can't stand it, then you could tell the person so. Only do this if they are persistent in the behaviour, and only if you are prepared for the possible consequence of future interactions being awkward.

A lighthearted approach might be to say:

Is there something in my teeth? Just you seem to be looking at my mouth.

Or the approach favoured by a lot of women when dealing with wandering eyes:

[Pointing at your eyes] I'm up here.

  • 14
    I don't agree with this answer because it suggests that looking at a speaker's mouth is somehow abnormal. It's not. That's just how conversation works for some people. If someone commented on me looking at their mouth while they're speaking, I would be very put off. – Apologize and reinstate Monica Mar 27 '18 at 13:10
  • @sgroves Fair point, it isn't abnormal, especially if you are a lip reader for example. I have removed any reference to it being "weird", which I accept that it isn't - but it makes the OP feel uncomfortable and the question we are being invited to answer is how to make it stop. I feel that I have pointed out all possibilities and reasons why the OP shouldn't feel self conscious about it, and I have stressed that there may be downsides to acting on it. – Astralbee Mar 27 '18 at 13:23
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    I also disagree that maintaining "good" eye contact is a solution. If someone's gaze is wandering despite your sustaining constant eye contact with them, it's likely because that eye contact is making them uncomfortable. Doubling down won't fix it. – Oosaka Mar 28 '18 at 12:22
  • @RozennKeribin Well this is why I gave several suggestions. We all have to take these questions at face value, and answer them as posed. The OP suggests that the kind of attention his mouth gets is unusual, so while I agree with your comment in general I don't think that is the issue. He mentioned his beard - I believe the glances are deliberate and opportunistic, not to do with awkwardness. – Astralbee Mar 28 '18 at 12:51
1

I look at people's mouths when they talk. I was asked about that, several years ago. It embarrassed me. Someone noticed me doing it and I told them it's because I have difficulty concentrating on what people are saying. My stream of consciousness interferes often when I am listening to someone and my mind picks up on a point and, instead of listening, I find myself thinking of an answer to that one point. Sometimes that leads me to miss the speakers main point, or I just get bored with what they are saying and interrupt them as I no longer have interest in what they are saying, only in what they have said. If I look at their mouth it keeps reminding me that they are talking and I must listen.

Edited in to take account of the comment below Yes, it's true I never really answered the question, did I? OK here are my solutions: What can be done. OK here are the possibilities. When someone looks at your mouth, point at your eyes comically, say "hey my eyes are up here". While you are speaking wear a mask that covers your mouth, with a sign on it saying "Eyes this way" and an arrow pointing upwards. Face with your back towards them, this way avoiding eye and mouth views. As you speak, every now and then, say things like "Hey I know my mouth's pretty but the eyes get the eyes maaaayne" Maybe use a little rhetorical question such as "oh fascinated by mouths eh" Stuff like that it all works, pretty sure of it

  • 1
    Welcome to IPS.SE! This is valuable personal experience; however, the question is "How to stop people from looking at my mouth when we're having a conversation?". Can you use your experience to answer it? How would you like to be addressed to make you stop staring at people's mouth, for instance? – LinuxBlanket Mar 27 '18 at 14:55
0

You may want to try to vary the way you speak.

When I speak and see people going into a routine (moving from eyes to mouth in a rhythm, which is normal), I usually try to do something which will make them break it.

This can be shifting, slowing down, speaking faster, moving my hands, standing up.

You will notice in this documentary video (from The IT Crowd) how Denholm put a dynamics in the team's behaviour by acting in an unusual way. I would not recommend that approach, though, as it is hardly reproductible.

Note: the first three paragraphs are the actual answer, the last one I could not resist.

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