My 4-year-old self can still hear my mother’s voice saying, “Look me in the eyes when I’m speaking to you, young lady.” Even though I was very young, this struck me as something that must be important. Turns out I was right, eye contact is very important.
Unless caused by a medical condition or a cultural norm, a lack of eye contact can be unsettling. A common complaint now heard in many hospitals from patients is, “My doctor never looked at me, they just looked at their computer the whole time.” There’s even concern that because of the abundant use of electronic devices, we are raising a whole generation of people who may be losing the ability to maintain eye contact while conversing.
When someone uses eye contact during a presentation, they are said to be more believable, convincing and knowledgeable. Eye contact conveys that you are listening. When we avoid eye contact, it may be perceived as if we are shifty, hiding something or lacking self-confidence.
Scientific research backs up the significance of eye contact. A study conducted by Cornell University looked at how eye contact produces a subconscious sense of connection.
In the study, researchers manipulated the gaze of the cartoon rabbit on several Trix cereal boxes showing the rabbit either looking away or directly at them. The researchers then asked a panel of adults to choose their favorite box. The one most frequently chosen was the one in which the rabbit was looking directly at them.
Turns out, eye contact produces a strong connection that extends even to drawn or photographed eyes.
In an August 2014 Forbes Magazine article, body language and communications expert, Carol Kinsey Gorman, Ph.D., indicated eye contact is connected with humans’ earliest survival. Children who could attract and maintain eye contact with an adult had the best chance of being cared for.
Today, newborns instinctively lock eyes with their caregivers. A 2002 MIT study found that infants were far more likely to follow an adult’s eyes rather than just their head movements. A baby’s eye contact still retains a strong impact on the adult mind.
Other interesting information about eye contact, according to Kinsey Gorman, includes:
- Eye contact is reduced when we discuss something shameful or embarrassing, or when we are sad or depressed. In addition, we are inclined to look away as we assess internal thoughts or emotions.
- Too little eye contact may make you appear uneasy, unprepared and insincere. An analysis of patients’ complaints from a large county hospital found nine out of 10 letters included mention of poor doctor-patient eye contact — a failure which was generally interpreted as “lack of caring.”
- In work environments, employees often keep their eyes down when the boss is asking a tough question, or if it appears that he or she may ask for volunteers for a work assignment.
- In face-to-face communication, women tend to make more eye contact than men.
- In general, we all tend to avoid eye contact in elevators, subways and other crowded areas. Kinsey Gorman said that avoiding eye contact in these crowded situations — and maybe staring at our smart phones — is how we manage the insecurity of having our personal space being invaded.
- Too much eye contact (what I like to refer to as, “laser gazer stare”) is instinctively felt to be rude, hostile and condescending. In a business context, it may also be perceived as deliberately trying to dominate, intimidate or belittle.
- We tend to increase eye contact when communicating with people we like, admire or those who have power over us.
- In more intense or intimate conversations, we look at one another more often, and gaze for longer periods of time. In fact, we judge relationships by the amount of eye contact: The greater the eye contact, the closer the relationship.
- Noticeably excessive blinking, if not caused by a medical condition, may indicate insecurity and nervousness. People have a tendency to not believe in leaders who excessively blink.
The amount of eye contact that produces a feeling of mutual likability and trustworthiness will vary with situations, settings, personality types, gender and cultural differences. As a general rule, direct eye contact should range from 30% to 60% of the time during a conversation — more when you are listening, less when you are speaking.
Some say our eyes are the only part of our brain that is directly exposed to the world, giving credence to the old saying, “The eyes are the windows to the soul.” Direct eye contact is a powerful way to make a real connection and, unless caused by a medical condition or cultural norms, there is something quite disturbing about the lack of eye contact.
As Kinsey Gorman noted, whether it’s shifty-eyed guilt or wide-eyed innocence, we instinctively assign enormous weight to the signals we receive when we look into each other’s eyes. Eye contact is one of the easiest and most commanding ways to make a person feel recognized and validated.