Eye contact occurs when "two people look at each other's eyes at the same time."
In human beings, eye contact is a form of nonverbal communication and is thought to have a large influence on social behavior. Coined in the early to mid-1960s, the term has come in the West to often define the act as a meaningful and important sign of confidence and social communication. The customs and significance of eye contact vary widely between cultures, with religious and social differences often altering its meaning greatly.
You're having a conversation with someone and suddenly his eyes drop to his smartphone or drift over your shoulder toward someone else.
It feels like this is happening more than ever—in meetings, at the dinner table, even at intimate cocktail parties—and there are signs that the decline of eye contact is a growing problem.
From the Wall Street Journal (click here).
See also: What the end of eye contact means (video)
From the Wall Street Journal (click here).
See also: What the end of eye contact means (video)
Adults make eye contact between 30% and 60% of the time in an average conversation, says the communications-analytics company Quantified Impressions. But the Austin, Texas, company says people should be making eye contact 60% to 70% of the time to create a sense of emotional connection, according to its analysis of 3,000 people speaking to individuals and groups.
One barrier to contact is the use of mobile devices for multitasking. Among twentysomethings, "it's almost become culturally acceptable to answer that phone at dinner, or to glance down at the baseball scores," says Noah Zandan, president of Quantified Impressions. (A common feint, texting while maintaining eye contact, not only is difficult but also comes off as phony.)
Some psychologists point to FOMO, or "fear of missing out" on social opportunities, says a study published earlier this year in Computers in Human Behavior. Young adults who are dissatisfied with their lives or relationships feel compelled to check mobile gadgets repeatedly to see what social opportunities they are missing—even when they don't enjoy it, the study says.
Because of the trend toward home-based and other remote work, people have become accustomed to talking without making eye contact, says Dana Brownlee, founder of Professionalism Matters, a corporate-training company in Atlanta. She cites a manager at a South Carolina financial-services company who started offering prizes to get employees to meet face to face. "People were dialing into meetings from offices that were literally just a few cubicles down the hall," Ms. Brownlee says.
Yet eye contact can be a tool for influencing others. Looking at a colleague when speaking conveys confidence and respect. Prolonged eye contact during a debate or disagreement can signal you're standing your ground. It also points to your place on the food chain: People who are high-status tend to look longer at people they're talking to, compared with others, says a 2009 research review in Image and Vision Computing.
When people withhold eye contact out of carelessness or disrespect, it speaks volumes. Suzanne Bates, author of "Speak Like a CEO," has coached executives who check their smartphones so often during meetings that "it's the equivalent of not showing up for half the meeting," she says. Employees get the message that they're not important and typically resent it, thinking, "I'm just as busy as the CEO. I just have different things to juggle," says Ms. Bates, chief executive of Bates Communications, Wellesley, Mass.
Holding eye contact works best for 7 to 10 seconds in a one-on-one conversation, and for 3 to 5 seconds in a group setting, says Ben Decker, chief executive officer of Decker Communications, a San Francisco-based training and consulting firm. Mr. Decker, whose company has been in business for 34 years, says that people who avert their gaze too soon, or avoid eye contact altogether, are often seen as "untrustworthy, unknowledgeable and nervous." Someone speaking to a group needs to look at many listeners so that no one feels left out or singled out.
When sales-training executive Lisa Contini consulted Decker to improve her communication skills, she found eye contact was a key piece of the puzzle. She used to drop or close her eyes during conversations. "I was pausing to formulate what I wanted to say, but it came across as if I didn't know what to say," she says. When she looked down to compose her thoughts during a disagreement with a colleague in a meeting several years ago, the colleague assumed she lacked confidence and hammered away even harder, Ms. Contini says.
Afterward, another participant in the meeting criticized her averted gaze, saying, "You looked like you were questioning yourself, and it made him feel, 'Yeah, I'm right!' " she says. With coaching from Mr. Decker, she learned to look people in the eye when under pressure. When a different co-worker challenged her in a recent meeting, she took a deep breath and kept eye contact while countering his points. He backed down, says Ms. Contini, co-founder of Synergy Sales Training, Los Gatos, Calif.
Watching yourself speak on videotape can raise awareness. Kiran Bhageshpur, an engineering vice president for a Seattle company, tried that during a coaching session with Mr. Decker. He realized that when he was uncertain about a topic he was discussing, "instinctively I wouldn't make eye contact, and that comes across as a negative," he says. He changed his habits and has since had more than 30 subordinates on his leadership team take similar training.
Corporate trainer Michelle Kruse says that as an introvert, she used to look down at her notes during meetings, or "hang out by the food" at social gatherings, partly because she felt uncomfortable making eye contact. "If somebody came to talk to me, I could look at the food and talk to them about that," she says. When speaking to groups, she avoided eye contact or scanned the room. Practice in front of a mirror helped her to see herself as others saw her. Learning to forge connections through eye contact helped her get audiences more engaged during presentations, says Ms. Kruse, vice president of learning at FortuneBuilders, San Diego.
Culture can be a factor. In many Eastern and some Caribbean cultures, meeting another's eyes can be rude. Asians are more likely than Westerners to regard a person who makes eye contact as angry or unapproachable, says a 2013 study in the online scientific journal PLOS ONE.
Too much eye contact can cause problems, too. At work, holding eye contact for more than 10 seconds can seem aggressive, empty or inauthentic, Mr. Decker says. In a social context, it may be seen as a sign of romantic interest, or just plain creepy. A study published this year in Applied Neuropsychology: Adult found questioners who gazed intently into participants' eyes while administering a test unnerved them so much that their working-memory performance was impaired.
Marisa Benson met with a colleague a few years ago who gazed intently at her for several minutes while they worked on a problem. But after they finished "and it was time to say, 'Thank you very much, I'll see you later,' it just didn't stop," says Ms. Benson of Atlanta, an administrative manager.
"If somebody has eye contact with you for more than 20 seconds, it's like, 'Ooh. There's that icky part.' You think, 'Can't you at least glance away and look at the window?' " Eventually, Ms. Benson deliberately dropped her pencil and leaned over to pick it up. Then, she says, "I stood up—and decided we were done."
How do people gauge their career progress: Praise from the boss? Landing a promotion? Scoring an office with a window?
Another important leading indicator is often missed – the amount of eye contact received from co-workers and supervisors. If the boss looks at you longer than at your co-workers during conversations or meetings, it may be a sign your star is rising.
A growing body of research shows eye contact signals status and influence in both one-on-one conversations and group meetings. High-status people receive more visual attention from their conversation partners, says a 2009 research review in the journal, Image and Vision Computing.
People who are seen as lacking in influence, however, get less eye contact from influential participants in meetings, according to another study published in 2010 in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. The pattern is strongest among male bosses, says the study of 17 work teams composed of a total of 94 people in several workplaces.
The most dominant person in a small group spends more time speaking than others, and also looks longer at others when speaking, the study says. Gazing into others’ eyes is a way of dominating the conversation. High-status women use even more eye contact than men to establish their dominance during meetings, the study says. The demands on women managers may cause them to feel “they need to be tougher than a man to succeed at the workplace,” the study says.
But when researchers assessed “visual egalitarianism” – the degree to which speakers allocated their eye contact evenly among other meeting participants, regardless of status – high-status women tend to be more democratic than men, dividing their eye contact equally among all other participants in a group. High-status men tended to spend more time looking at other high-status participants.
Many people are unaware of the importance of eye contact in conveying a message, as reported in today’s “Work & Family” column. The nonverbal elements of a speaker’s presentation – passion, voice and “presence” as conveyed largely through facial expression and eye contact – account for 65% of listeners’ evaluations, compared with only 35% that is based on the content of the presentation and the speaker’s apparent knowledge of the topic, according to research by Quantified Impressions, a communications analytics company.
“We see this over and over again: Everyone is focused on the words they’re saying, and they don’t realize that these nuances, and how they’re saying it, is sending an even stronger signal than their words,” says Briar Goldberg, director of feedback for Quantified Impressions.
Readers, are you ever annoyed by bosses’ or co-workers lack of eye contact? Have you been in a situation where a supervisor or colleague stopped looking at you? How did you interpret it? Do you consciously use eye contact to convey an impression or to influence or impress others? If so, what works for you?
Write to Sue Shellenbarger at email@example.com