Monday, October 3, 2011

Manners Monday – “Keeping Our Eyes Wide Open” - Eye Contact Etiquette

In an age where the majority of our gaze is focused down at our smart phones or in front of our computers, the act of looking someone in the eye seems almost ancient.  So much of our daily communication is spent online that we rarely have an opportunity to engage in face-to-face interactions.  How many times have we seen the E-troduction used over the in-person introduction or a conversation occur over text rather than at a neighborhood cafe?  It’s not surprising that many people have a problem with making proper eye contact, and it’s only getting worse!  

When I survey parents on what issues they would like to see improved with their children’s manners, one of the most common responses I receive is the concern over their children not making proper eye contact with adults. Meanwhile, there are a great number of adults who could benefit from a bit of coaching in this area!

Eye contact is a big deal in this country.  First and foremost, it is a sign of respect.  Secondly, it is a confirmation that lets another person know we are paying attention to them and interested in what they have to say.  Parents will repeatedly remark to their children to look at them when they are speaking so that they are assured their children are listening.  This parent/child dynamic regarding eye contact begins at an early age (about 6 to 8 weeks old to be exact) when a baby first registers its parent’s familiar face and is able to follow them with their eyes.

In the hope that we’ll still have plenty of excuses to make direct eye contact in the future, we have compiled below several tips on eye contact etiquette we hope you'll find handy.

Eyes are the Window to the Soul.  Our eye contact is a non-verbal form of communication that reveals not only how we feel about the people we are talking to, but also how we feel about ourselves.  When we are feeling confident, secure and in control, we have no trouble making direct eye contact with others, but it is when we are feeling vulnerable, insecure or shy that our eyes want shift downward towards the floor or away from others.  Whether we give someone a quick glance, a cold stare or a lingering gaze, can be very telling of our emotions towards a person at any given time.

Get into the Zone. For those with varying degrees of comfort with eye contact, there are alternatives to looking someone directly in the eyes.  An equally pleasing middle ground is to transfer your focus towards other parts of the face.  You can even visualize a triangle on the other person’s forehead and shift your gaze there instead.  Good eye contact should be made 40-60 percent of the time.  Any less and a person is perceived as suspicious or concealing something and any more tends to make people feel as if they are being scrutinized or put on the spot. Striking the right balance not only makes others feel important, but also makes you appear in control.   

The Trouble with Staring.  Be careful not to stare.  A tense face or fixed gaze is often perceived as threatening and can sometimes come across as peculiar or even abnormal.  Extending eye contact can also be misconstrued as an affront or a challenge of authority. To avoid staring, be sure to blink normally, and occasionally nod or shift your head during conversation. Monitoring your blinking and mimicking the facial expressions of the person speaking further helps to support appropriate eye contact.

Eye Contact in Social Situations.  Don’t be one of those “lookie loos” who is perpetually looking for someone better or more interesting to talk to. If you are unable to make eye contact, you come across as disinterested or bored and this is not an attractive quality.  When interacting with people, make direct eye contact and act as if they are the only person in the room. Give them your full attention and they will take notice. Good eye contact is crucial especially when making introductions. It gives the appearance that you are comfortable and present to the situation.  Social eye signals tend to stay in the area between the eyes and mouth.  This lets the other person know that a social atmosphere is developing.

Eye Contact for the Professional.  In business, it is particularly important to make eye contact when you are introduced to someone and when they are speaking to you. Frequently glancing away or refusing to make eye contact may be interpreted as weak, disinterested, or disrespectful.  To convey professionalism, keep your gaze in the upper middle region of the other person’s forehead focusing primarily in the upper face, through the eyes, brows and forehead.  

Eye Contact Overseas.  Eye contact differs depending upon the culture.  In the United States and most of Europe, making eye contact is welcome and considered appropriate.  It is interpreted as showing interest, paying attention and a sign of self-confidence.  This is significantly different from some other cultures where direct eye contact is perceived as aggressive, rude or a show of disrespect. In Asian cultures, for example, young children show their respect to elders by avoiding making direct eye contact, the same goes for employees who want to show deference to their employers.  These cultures do not view avoiding eye contact as rude or disinterested, but quite the opposite, as being polite. 

Eye Contact between the Sexes.  In certain cultures, and some religious sects, eye contact between men and women is considered highly inappropriate and is seen as threatening or flirtatious. In many Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, avoiding eye contact with a member of the opposite sex is seen as a show of respect.  This is quite different from our forward American culture which has no gender boundaries with regard to making direct eye contact. 

Perhaps Frankie Valli had a glimpse of the future when he sang the lyrics, “you’re just too good to be true, can’t take my eyes off of you.”  Sure he might have been singing the song about a special lady, but we can pretend that he was using it as a reminder for us to pay closer attention to our eye contact and how it affects others.  After all, don’t we all appreciate when someone looks us directly in the eye and treats us as if we are the only person in the room?  I know I do!  

Have any issues with eye contact? Are you good at it?  At parties do you suffer from the "lookie loo" syndrome? Share with us, we'd love to hear from you!

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