Today I asked this question: Why do people want eye contact when talking?

It was closed as too broad and here are the explanations that I got in comments:

When expressing emotions, you make eye contact to make it feel more genuine. When angry, you want to intimidate the other party. When lying, you want to trick them with your lie. When expressing sadness, you make eye contact subconsciously because you are that invested in sadness. These are just a few examples and may not necessarily be the real reason. But you get the idea? Eye contact, as Elmy mentioned, is a HUGE part of what makes us humans and for SEVERAL reasons. - A

I read somewhere that dogs look at their owner in the eyes when pooping because they are trusting the owner to protect them. The also apparently make eye contact and tilt their head to the side when you are saying something because they are trying to understand what you are saying. Not sure how scientifically accurate they are, but even dogs making eye contact has several reasons. It is just not something that can be covered in a Q&A site such as this one. - A

However, I disagree with the reasoning here. To me, it's like saying:

You can't ask "how is electricity made?" because it's too broad.

However, it is totally possible to answer this question in a few words, you don't need to go in all the tiny little details!

So, what do you think, should my question be reopened?

  • 1
    I don't think "how is electricity made?" would be accepted on any stack exchange site exactly because it would be too broad. Some stacks I've been involved with end up posting canonical community answers to common broad questions on their stack, but that doesn't make the original question good. Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 17:28

2 Answers 2


tl;dr I think your question should not be considered too broad. However, we need to come up with better guidelines than what currently exist for writing questions about understanding social norms.

What the help center says

The help center says that questions fitting these four topics are good questions here

  • using or understanding interpersonal interactions to resolve specific problems or prevent problems from occurring with a specific goal in mind. This includes interactions with family, friends, work/school associates, acquaintances or strangers (or anyone else).
  • the written and unwritten - but well-established and expected - rules or conventions of behavior in a specific setting (also called etiquette).
  • understanding social norms as they relate to interpersonal interactions - why do we interact the way we do?
  • understanding theories and concepts commonly associated with interpersonal skills. - What is [theory/concept] or How do I use [theory/concept] to achieve [goal]?

Your question about why people make eye contact definitely falls into the third topic. So I would say that it is definitely on topic. Your question was closed as too broad, so let's take a look at what the help center says about that.

Because interpersonal interactions are very complex, we require that questions be specific - and preferably that they relate to a situation you are actually in. Please include the following information where possible, and to the degree that you are comfortable (anonymizing as necessary):

It also mentions that bad questions include questions that:

lack a clear goal we can address. We can provide solutions to achieve goals but we can not tell you what your goal should be. Questions should state the preferred outcome of the situation clearly.

These things very much make it sound like your question is too broad. Your question does not currently have a clearly defined goal that pertains to a specific situation, however, it does have an implicitly implied goal of understanding why we interact in a specific way.

What I think should happen

I believe that understanding social norms being on topic is in conflict with requiring questions to be specific and have a goal related to specific interactions. Trying to understand a social norm is inherently broader than a question asking about how to solve a particular problem in a specific situation. Social norms are patterns of behavior that are expected in a specific social context. Some of these norms are wider reaching than others, but all of them involve a pattern of behavior that is accepted and expected by some social group.

Requiring that questions about understanding social norms reference specific situations is good for social norms that are only expected in very specific situations, but for something like eye contact, a social norm which is ubiquitous across most cultures, truly understanding it will require looking beyond specific interactions.

Personally, as a person who struggles to understand a lot of social norms, I think that questions about understanding them are good and beneficial for the stack. However, if we are going to allow such questions then I think we need to come up with some better guidelines for asking questions about them than are currently in the help center. If we don't then we'll have a hard time helping questions like yours either stay open or evolve into questions that should be open.


I think that the question is too broad for IPS.SE.

I'll second what Rainbacon said regarding the relationship between the question and the help center's current contents, but I have a couple of additional observations:

1. "Why" is often an extremely difficult question to answer.

The glib answer in the case of the question linked in your post here would be along the lines of "it's what most people do most of the time, and is so common that someone not making eye contact seems strange". That doesn't explain why the behavior exists, but tautologically states that people want it because that's what they want. Not very helpful, and probably not the sort of answer you were looking for. It's also not really supported by anything-- it's an assertion about what "everyone" thinks, and not really amenable to the "back it up" policy.

If you're looking for a description of the genesis of that behavioral preference in humans (which I assume is closer to what you wanted) I don't know how someone might answer that question in a definitive way. It's like asking what the purpose of the human hand typically having five digits is. It's not clear that there is a specific purpose to it.

This is very different from your counterexample of "how is electricity produced?". This is a physical process which is well-understood, and that understanding is applied every moment of every day as people build and operate equipment designed to execute that process in order to make electricity.

2. The answer, if one truly exists and is provided, doesn't seem related to interpersonal skills.

I imagine that the intent behind a "why" question like this is often to help someone understand a norm that they have trouble complying with naturally. And an understanding of the purpose behind that norm might help someone "get it" and then start participating in the "normal" mode, or help them compensate with other behaviors that address the same rationale but are easier for that person to do.

A goal like that would be better addressed by a more focused question, like "I have trouble making an appropriate amount of eye contact during conversation, which puts people off. How can I make them feel more at ease when speaking with me?". This includes the problem and the goal. The "why" version of the question includes neither.

3. It's unclear what a "good" or "bad" answer would be.

In the "how is electricity made" example, you state that there is "no need to go into all the tiny little details". But how would an answerer know which details to include without any other context? Is "sometimes, steam spins spins a turbine" enough? Or does the asker need a description of how electricity is produced in a coal plant vs. a nuclear plant vs. a photovoltaic cell? Or is the asker really looking for a description of how electrons are made to travel across metal wires, and how those electrons power devices? The question is unclear as to which of those would be preferred.

And these are for a well-defined, well-understood, physical process. For an essentially ubiquitous behavioral norm. "Why" questions about self-reinforcing behavioral norms seem almost guaranteed to stray into pseudo-science, abstract philosophy, and sets of assertions and assumptions that the Q&A format of StackExchange can't really accommodate.

  • 1
    The question is tagged with "academic-research", indicating that good answers should cite academic sources - doesn't that avoid at least some of your concerns in the first / last sections? That would eliminate the personal experience, "it's just what everyone does", pseudo-science, "logical" assumption type answers.
    – Em C
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 21:00
  • 2
    I actually don't think that the question is too broad (or at least shouldn't be considered to be so). Perhaps I need to edit my answer to make that more clear. From my answer "Personally, as a person who struggles to understand a lot of social norms, I think that questions about understanding them are good and beneficial for the stack". I think that the help center makes it easy to justify closing this question as too broad, but I think we should be re-evaluating the criteria for too broad in this instance.
    – Rainbacon
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 21:02
  • @EmC Some, certainly. But being published isn't a guarantee of accuracy or quality (look at the replication crisis going on in scientific publications right now). SE is simply not equipped to accommodate the discussion present in academic publishing, and so I feel that relying on publication as an objective standard will tend to overstate the accuracy of such answers. And there are certainly published papers which are steeped in pseudo-science and the like (consider evolutionary psychology- a mix of quality, but lots of "just so" stories presented as literally and uniquely correct).
    – Upper_Case
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 21:24
  • (continued) I think that these are fine topics for discussion, but simply won't work very well in the SE format. We just don't have the mechanisms for it.
    – Upper_Case
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 21:31
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    @Rainbacon I've edited my answer so as to not misrepresent your position (please let me know if it still does so). However, I maintain that "why" is a hard question to answer, and that that answer will be hard to use even if objectively and definitively known, when you already know "that" it's an interpersonal skill that is generally expected. I'm not trying to dictate anything, just expressing my opinion on what will best serve the stack according to my current understanding of its goals.
    – Upper_Case
    Commented Jan 17, 2019 at 21:36

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