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Why Do We Roll Our Eyes?

Phoebe Jade

Written By:

Phoebe Jade

Updated: 18 April 2024 •  
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An eye roll is one of the most common gestures out there. With just one second of it, you can express your feelings without a word.
 
However, where did the interpretation of an eye roll come from? And why do we do it? Let’s explore the answers to these questions as you scroll down.

 

What is an eye roll & have they always been the same?

woman covering her eyes with both hands

Eye rolling back then was a flirtatious gesture.

 

When we roll our eyes, that’s a common sign of annoyance. For some people, it’s how they express their disbelief with a hint of sarcasm as if saying, “yeah, right.”
 
It’s such a powerful form of non-verbal communication that many people don’t like it. However, this eye-rolling wasn’t seen as passive-aggressive before. It meant the opposite!
 
Back in Shakespeare’s era, eye rolls were a flirtatious gesture. Yes, you read that right.
 
In one of his poems, he wrote that the villain was “rolling his greedy eyeballs in his head” while looking at his object of desire.
 
Until the 1950s, you’d see books, music, and films using an eye-roll as a flirting gesture.
 
Sometimes, you’ll see actors dramatically roll their eyes while they swoon, almost fainting at the sight of the leading man.
 
Of course, this romantic meaning flipped 180 degrees when the 1960s hit. Slowly but surely, eye-rolling was equal to feeling annoyed, exasperated, or frustrated.
 
By the 1980s, that negative connotation stuck until now.
 

But an eye roll means different things around the world

the woodabe tribe performing eye roll as part of their traditional dance

The Woodabe tribe has a traditional dance that involves eye-rolling. Source: Adventure.com

 
For some cultures, eye-rolling has a whole different meaning. In the West, it can refer to feeling irritated or in disbelief.
 
However, it’s a different case for the Woodabe tribe in Africa. As per tradition, they would attend the Gerewol festival, a yearly beauty pageant–slash–matchmaking party.
 
In this special event, Woodabe men would don their intricate clothes and makeup. Then, they would dance for hours, rolling their eyes and gnashing their teeth to show their beauty.
 
All of these are in hopes of finding their perfect match. They use eye-rolling to find a romantic partner or to attract them.
 

The psychology behind an eye roll

closeup of an eyeball rolling upwards

Eye-rolling is a reaction connected to our emotions. Source: Pinterest

 
Since time immemorial, human beings have expressed their emotions through action.
 
When you’re angry, you might clench your fists or jaw. The same goes for eye-rolling.
 
When someone rolls their eyes, that’s their natural reaction to what’s happening before them. It can signify disbelief, boredom, contempt, and more.
 
The gesture itself is like when you’re brushing off something that might overwhelm you emotionally.
 
Or, it could be that you feel superior and dismiss someone else’s ideas as unimportant or irrelevant to you.
 
For these reasons, you might see moody teenagers often use this gesture.
 
Some of your co-workers at a boring meeting might also do this, wanting to wrap it up ASAP.
 
In a 2018 study, researchers found that eye movement, such as an eye roll, can link to personality traits.
 
For instance, it relates to how agreeable you are or whether you’re an extrovert.
 
Another study in 2021 also suggested that eye-rolling isn’t a 100% negative gesture.
 
It can be a protest or a healthy disagreement, especially with “someone going too far.”
 

How we use eye rolls in different contexts

a blonde woman rolling her eyes while resting her chin on her hand

Eye-rolling can mean different things based on the context. Source: NY Times

 
It’s pretty fascinating how we can communicate with our eyes only. With a simple eye-roll, you can say so much and get a reaction from others too.
 
For instance, you might roll your eyes in the following situations.

 

  • You’re in an argument, and the other person frustrates you.
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  • Someone tells a bad joke, and you’re not impressed at all.
  •  

  • The lecture or meeting sounds boring.
  •  

  • Your least favorite person butts in the conversation.
  •  

  • Someone announces a false claim, and you don’t believe it.
  •  

  • You feel attacked or defensive during a conversation.
  •  

  • You don’t have the energy to deal with life right now.

 
However, it can also be a sign of feeling so much joy. Someone might roll their eyes while eating their favorite food or gushing about their crush.
 
It all depends on the context. If your friend or romantic partner rolls their eyes at you, even when you’re being serious, that might be a red flag in your relationship.
 
On the other hand, rolling your eyes at someone might also offend them.
 
This is especially true if you’re not super close friends, and they need more context to understand what you’re trying to express.
 
Regarding these scenarios, the best way forward is to be honest about your intentions.
 
Non-verbal talk can only do so much. It’s still up to you how you can express yourself the best way you can.
 

Did you know eye rolls affect social interactions & relationships?

a couple drinking wine together

Eye-rolling can affect your relationship’s way of communication.

 

Rolling your eyes at your significant other might seem harmless at first. But, if it happens way too often, it can signify something wrong in the relationship.
 
When you roll your eyes during a conversation, it’s like you’re shrugging the topic off or sighing with your eyes.
 
It’s a pretty dismissive gesture. And, of course, your partner will probably get offended.
 
Too much eye-rolling can lead to an argument. Your partner might feel ignored and disrespected every time you dismiss them with your eyes. And the same goes for you if the scenario’s reversed.
 
Rather than going for healthy communication, too much eye-rolling turns your relationship into a one-sided convo.
 
Over time, this can lead to bitter resentment and a lack of trust.
 
So, if there’s too much dismissive eye-rolling, keep these simple relationship tips in mind.
 

  • Be honest and emphaticAsk if there’s something wrong, and talk about how the eye-rolling makes you feel.
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  • Set your boundariesIf you want less non-verbal communication, you must say it aloud and set it as a rule. It also helps you and your partner respect each other better.
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  • If you’re on the verge of an argumentTry to take a break.
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  • If the eye-rolling is too muchYou should ask for professional help. Maybe it’s a symptom of a vision problem or a sign of an underlying issue in your relationship.

 

Eye rolls in men and women

a blonde woman with red lips rolling her eyes with a smirk

Women are more likely to roll their eyes. Source: Galore Mag

 
Frequently, you might see women rolling their eyes more than men. It’s not just because they learn it at school.
 
Rolling their eyes is one of their evolutionary traits.
 
You see, researchers found out that women are more likely to express their aggression indirectly.
 
Instead of getting into fistfights, women might criticize, spread rumors, and roll their eyes at someone.
 
It can be their way of showing who’s in charge without getting physical. You can interpret an eye-roll as them saying, “enough, stop wasting my time.”
 
As a result, eye-rolling is one of the non-verbal tactics that can trigger someone’s fight-or-flight instinct.
 
It can also make other people anxious.
 
So really, this gesture isn’t only a rebellious tantrum for teenagers. Eye-rolling is a survival tactic used since history was born.
 
For women, it can be one of their ways of dealing with society to tell the haters to be quiet without saying a word.
 

Let your eyes roll away, but not too much

Eye-rolling is one of the top-tier non-verbal forms of communication. It speaks volumes about your feelings, even if you don’t say it aloud.
 
However, it’s reasonably easy for others to misunderstand this gesture.
 
You should try to express yourself differently, especially if you don’t want to be mistaken for a snob who rolls their eyes at everyone.

Phoebe Jade

Written by:

Phoebe Jade

Phoebe is a registered nurse, licensed teacher and writer who's passionate about creating content that educates and inspires.