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Sometimes while walking past people, or because you thought you heard them say something (but they didn't), you look at people for a second. Sometimes your eye wanders when you're lost in thought. And some of those times they happen to look at you too, at the same moment.

There's an inadvertent, short eye contact. I usually instinctively look away, but that somehow feels weird. As though I'm deliberately avoiding eye contact, or like I was just caught staring. But I don't see the point of maintaining eye contact in these situations either. Explaining myself seems to be unwarranted. What would be the right/normal thing to do here?

I don't have problems maintaining eye contact otherwise, like at a meeting, or in a conversation with people.

Edit: I did see this question, but don't consider mine a duplicate of it. OP of that post knows exactly what to do on eye contact, but needs help with when (or whether) to make eye contact. I, on the other hand, have no choice in the matter. I'm talking about an accidental eye contact, and I have no clue about what to when it does happen.

closed as primarily opinion-based by Arwen Undómiel, Anne Daunted, Tycho's Nose, Rainbacon, sphennings Feb 19 '18 at 16:23

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 3
    @user46208 I did see that post, and I disagree. Here's the key difference: The OP of that post says "...I will make eye contact with them, smile and nod..." and "..I like to perform this exchange whenever the situation occurs...". Whereas I don't mean to make eye contact, but it inadvertently happens, and I don't know what to do next. – insanity Nov 16 '17 at 12:14
  • What do you want to happen? – user6109 Nov 16 '17 at 15:57
  • "What would be the normal/right thing to do?" Smile. Nod. Whatever. For me, the question falls on "opinion-based". However, I think all of us agree that that is the normal/right thing to do. I'm not sure to VTC or not. – Vylix Nov 17 '17 at 5:46
  • @Vylix I don't know, aren't all questions about "interpersonal skills" opinion based in varying degrees? – insanity Nov 17 '17 at 6:53
  • @insanity yes, but usually asking "what's normal" invites POB close votes. In this particular question, though, I think it's not too-opinion based. – Vylix Nov 17 '17 at 8:57
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Explaining yourself is definitely unwarranted, and would probably end up being a time-waster if you're a frequent offender of staring off into space that ends up being occupied with another human like I often am.

I'd recommend finding a neutral facial expression/action you feel comfortable making acknowledgement with. For me, it's a slight brow raise and a very small nod, while slowly turning my head a different direction. I've seen this among my peers at college, and it tends to give off a vibe of:

I've just realized I've been accidentally staring in your direction, and I'm going to refocus my attention to a different area of my surroundings now.

The slow adjustment of refocusing your attention also indicates that you aren't trying to hide what you were doing because you weren't doing anything perverse.

However, at the end of the day it needs to be something you feel comfortable with expressing to other strangers. Whether that ends up being a nod, a smile, or nothing at all is up to you.

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My culture, Germany, is known for staring (at least in anglo-saxon circles), but smiling would seem strange. People usually look each other in the eye while maintaining a neutral expression.

My proposed solution would be not to look away quickly, that would make it seem like you stared. Instead, defocus and continue watching, as if the person you are looking at is just part of your surroundings. You can then slowly look at something else. Act as if you had glanced at a car, or a nice house.

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What would be the right/normal thing to do here?

You have many possibilities:

  • You can smile and say hi.
  • You can ask how they're doing, such as "Hi, how are you?" This works for people you know or don't know.
  • If they look like someone you know and you don't know them, you can say, "You really look like my friend Bob ..." and start a conversation. This is a great conversation opener for meeting strangers.
  • You can smile and walk away.
  • You can walk away without doing or saying anything at all.

As far as what's normal - what do people normally do in the UK? Here in the US, what other people do depends on their character. Social butterflies tend to do 2 and 3, silent types tend to do 1 or 4, and really shy types tend to do 5.

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There's a really simple solution :

Do nothing.

Go on about your business and forget it.

I usually instinctively look away, but that somehow feels weird.

I think you're over thinking this. It feels weird because you're over-thinking it, not because it is. It's normal.

Now I would also consider any option of the form of a casual nod or an inquisitive look or a "sorry, did you ask me something ?" or "pardon, thought you were someone else" type of thing. This should not be an issue with most people. I think the less the better in most of these cases.

But the main issue seems to be your feelings about these (fairly trivial) encounters. I honestly think you just need to let them go. Your comfort level will improve as you get into the habit.

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