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Eye contact communicates respect, interest and the mere fact that a person is paying attention to the conversation at hand. Sometimes, a buzzing or bleeping phone can interrupt — and the most disingenuous thing to do is pull out your phone, continue saying, “Uh-huh,” while you slip a glance at your screen. It doesn’t work—you’ll end up asking your friend to repeat herself—and it comes off as phony.
Our eyes can sometimes be the source of miscommunication, so we’ve put together a few proactive tips illustrating good eye contact etiquette that will help you strengthen relationships and improve this ever-important, nonverbal skill.
You might say looking at the ground or staring out a window is too cold, while staring into someone’s eyes is too hot. The Goldilocks for eye contact is 7 to 10 seconds — just right.
For a personal relationship, visualize an inverted triangle with the top line horizontal along a person’s eyes and the bottom tip on their chin. In a professional encounter, flip the triangle so it covers their eyes and forehead. It can be overwhelming to look directly into someone’s pupils, but this range will allow for the same effect — they know you’re paying attention.
Last, don’t blink too much, as it makes you seem nervous. Smiling, nodding, or otherwise changing your facial expression can help provide a natural break to extended eye contact.
In a Group Setting
Eye contact can be used to control a room. Prolonged eye contact can indicate you’re standing your ground in a debate — or higher up on the food chain. But generally, when speaking in a group, eye contact should only be held for three to five seconds, and to be democratic, should be inclusive of everyone involved in the conversation.
To keep your eye contact organic, consider it to be “a series of long glances instead of intense stares,” as Sharon Sayler writes in her book, What Your Body Says (And How to Master the Message).
Excusing yourself to answer a text message or check email on a smartphone is slightly more acceptable than in a one-on-one conversation.
Our smartphones are to blame for failing to maintain eye contact with people with whom we’re physically present — but eye contact plays into the conversations we hold online, too.
In video interviews on Skype or a Google+ Hangout, users often look at the image of the other person on their laptop screen while the laptop webcam is directly above the screen. The result is that people often look as if they’re looking down. The easy fix is to remember to look directly into the webcam, at least while you’re the one speaking. While you’re listening to others, you can go back to looking at the screen — and thus pick up on the nonverbal cues they are sharing with you.
These guidelines apply in the U.S. and Europe, where eye contact is seen as a sign of respect and indication a person is paying attention, but this isn’t the case in every part of the world. In some Asian cultures, eye contact with a superior is disrespectful, while in the Middle East, it may be inappropriate to have eye contact with the opposite sex. Keep these tips in mind, but be sure to adapt to new situations by observing what others are doing—just don’t stare.