I was out to dinner with a friend last week, and once again he asked me with an annoyed voice, “Are you listening?” He has asked me this question other times when we had been out, sitting across from one another, and having a conversation while dining. He asks me this when I look away at other things going on in the restaurant while he is speaking – and he probably even gets annoyed if I look away for a moment when I’m speaking. So I started to wonder if it’s just him awkwardly insisting that my eyes stay on him constantly during a conversation or if I’m doing something unacceptable by occasionally looking away from him during our verbal exchanges. I was delighted with what I learned after investigating the situation and thought I would share the “right amount of eye contact while having a conversation” with my readers – especially readers who may have been blatantly criticized by someone for the amount of eye contact you give him or her.
Though I found differing opinions on the amount of eye contact that should be given to others during a conversation, as hard as I looked, I found no information that says 100 percent eye contact during a conversation is suggested – or required to be socially proper. None even come close to saying that one should or needs to look directly at the other person all the time during a conversation. None. Likewise, there were no sources that said no eye contact is suggested or proper in terms of etiquette, either.
One book on etiquette said that 70 percent eye contact is the average – and is acceptable. Another, more in-depth study on the topic discussed in a Forbes article, insists that the wide range of 30 percent-to-60 percent of eye contact is acceptable during a conversation. The range is explained by saying that “the right amount of eye contact” for a comfortable, likable, and trusted conversation – which probably everyone wants to have – varies with the situation and setting of the conversation. However, it is said that personality types, gender and cultural differences will cause the swing from 30-to-60 percent being the “right amount of eye contact” as well.
Giving a person too much eye contact, apparently over 70 percent during a conversation, is instinctively felt to be rude, hostile, and condescending, according to Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., who studies body language including eye contact. Think about the people who give constant eye contact during lengthy conversations and decide for yourself whether you consider the constant staring as presenting a less comfortable environment. Outside of social conversations, Dr. Gorman says that too much eye contact in business situations can be perceived as a form of domination, intimidation or belittlement. So, unless your purpose is to be any of these traits, break the stare and relax the eyes on your communication partners. This, I would think is good advice for job seekers when sitting across from the interviewer. Very good advice, actually.
Dr. Gorman, naturally, points out the disadvantage of not giving enough eye contact as well – which would be more than 30 percent by her standards. Too little makes a person look to be uneasy and insincere. In her study, she points out that 90 percent of letters of complaint about doctors involve “lack of eye contact” from doctors. The reason, she believes, is that too little eye contact given to the patient equates to the patient feeling that the doctor does not care about him or her in general.
The study says that eye contact is reduced when the topic of conversation is about something shameful, embarrassing, or sad as well as when we are accessing internal thoughts or emotions during the conversation. In other words, when speaking to someone and “thinking out loud,” a person will most likely look away – while in thought. When conversations are of an intense or intimate nature, the “gaze” is held longer – but still not near the 100 percent mark of being a literal “stare” at one another.
People increase eye contact when they like the people they are talking to, as well as when they admire the person they are communicating with. However, there is increased eye contact when the other person in the conversation has “power” over us which plays into an intimidation factor – which doesn’t make for a comfortable conversation for one of the two conversationalists involved.
Of interest, Gorman says that females look more at the people they talk to than males do. Thinking about this, it seems to be quite true. Very true. She says that women prefer face-to-face conversations while men are just fine having a conversation while standing – or sitting – side-by-side.
Years ago, I had severe discipline issues with a young lady in my class and the mother of the girl came in for a conference. During a very unpleasant exchange with the mother who refused to believe her daughter was doing anything wrong, the mother said, “You’re lying because you’re not looking me in the eye!” As she refused to break the glare into my eyes, I wish I knew what to say to the mother then that I would now. According to Dr. Gorman, “the biggest body language myth about liars is that they avoid eye contact.” The truth is that many liars overcompensate to ‘prove’ that they are not lying by making too much eye contact and holding it too long.
It’s decades later, and I have nothing to gain or lose by telling anything but the truth, and the truth is that I was not lying to that mother about her daughter’s horrendous misbehaviors – regardless of the amount of eye contact she required for our exchange. I had hoped her daughter would turn out well in years that followed – as I hope for any of my students, but I have seen her name in the newspapers for criminal activities several times through the years. If only her mother would have accepted the help teachers tried to offer back then – regardless of the eye contact during conferences – things might have turned out differently for her daughter. But, obviously, I digress.
In summation, if your eye contact with the people you’re having conversations with falls between 30-to-60 percent according to studies – or about 70 percent according to etiquette experts – you’re good! So, the next time my friend asks with an annoyed voice, “Are you listening?” when I dare look away for a few moments, I’ll just say, “I’m trying to lower my eye-contact percentage to the acceptable level.”
Gorman is an international keynote speaker who authored “The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt ‘How You Lead.” In recent times, Catherine Johns, formerly radio personality Larry Lujack’s lovable sidekick on WLS-AM radio in Chicago, covers such topics in her speaking engagements as well.