When communicators interact with one another, they necessarily gaze (or look) at each other or gaze separately or together at objects, artifacts, or events in the perceptual world. Gazing, scholars in language and social interaction have shown, is a fundamental mechanism through which people manage, coordinate, and choreograph their communicative activities. Gaze-in-interaction, then, is the term of choice to refer to these multiple activities, including the ways in which people use gaze as a resource for accomplishing specific interactional goals.
In general, people may gaze each other “in the eyes” (“mutual gaze”), gaze at specific bodily parts (e.g., a pointing gesture) or toward objects or artifacts, gaze at their own gestural behaviors to bring recipient’s focused attention to such activities (“gaze-shifts”; see Streeck 1994), or look in a direction established by another (sometimes called “triadic eye gaze”). These activities, researchers have shown, serve important functions; they “do” things.
When looking at another, a communicator may signal interaction readiness, thereby making himself or herself available, or asking the other, for human contact: this is a first function of gaze (Goffman 1963). A second function of gaze is to regulate interaction and monitor another person’s behavior (Kendon 1967). For instance, speakers cue recipients when it is their turn to talk. Prototypically, a person looks away as they start to speak, presumably to hold their turn of talk, and gazes toward the recipient at the end of their utterance to relinquish the conversational floor or to enable participants to produce smooth transitions in turn-taking sequences. In some interactional contexts, speakers may precisely time their gaze toward listeners to provoke an audible feedback cue, and when a response is offered, their gaze is terminated (“gaze window”; see Bavelas et al. 2002). In short, participants gaze to regulate the flow of conversation. Third, people gaze to convey emotions and relational-intimacy-immediacy cues. Depending on the duration, frequency, and intensity of a gaze, participants may display dominance, liking, or attraction, and when juxtaposed with other nonverbal behaviors such as facial expressions, gazing may convey myriad emotions such as anger or happiness. When people gaze, then, they do not just look at people or objects, but instead, subtleties about how looking is done will perform important, interactionally implicative functions.
In addition to serving multiple functions, gaze also is something people interpret in particular ways. Across cultures, we find, for instance, that people agree on the meaning of a stare by interpreting it as a sign of assertiveness, suggesting that maintaining gaze and averting or withdrawing may be taken as signs of dominance or weakness. Much work has been done to decipher how gazes may be interpreted. For instance, an early study by Burgoon et al. (1984) about the perceived communicative meaning of gaze evidenced that communicators interpret frequent eye gaze as conveying greater intimacy, immediacy, dominance, persuasiveness, and aggressiveness, while gaze aversion shapes interpretation in the opposite direction. As a later study (Burgoon et al. 1985) also showed, gaze aversion negatively influences job interviewers’ interpretive judgment about a prospective employee, including his or her credibility, competence, or sociability, and decreases the likelihood that they will be hired. How people gaze, then, carries both relational and institutional consequences.
Although gaze activities shape cultural members’ interpretive-perceptual judgment, some research has examined how people interpret, orient to, and react to a particular gaze in the course of naturally occurring interaction. One recent study, for instance, showed how children interpret and differentiate the meaning of caregivers’ multiple kinds of gazing activities (Kidwell 2005). As the author illustrated, young children differentiate caregivers’ “mere looks” from “the look” by orienting to the gaze’s implication on subsequent actions, particularly the likelihood that caregivers will intervene on sanctionable activities. How to interpret a gaze, then, is not just a matter of perception, but becomes meaningful, and collaboratively achieved, in and through interactional actions performed “in the moment.”
To date, research on gaze-in-interaction has offered a rich descriptive account of how people coordinate their communicative activities to accomplish particular interactional (e.g., taking turns at speaking), relational (e.g., cueing intimacy and attraction), and institutional tasks (e.g., disciplining children or being compliant with and resistant to therapy). Interestingly, findings about how gazing operates in human interaction have been influential, shaping the design of accurate gazing behaviors from conversational agents operating within virtual environments or mediated conversation.
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