Last week I was on the subway heading to meet a friend. Upon reaching the Times Square stop where I had to switch trains, I was suddenly struck by the idea of trying an eye contact experiment. Now some people think making eye contact on a NYC subway an act of danger. In my experience having lived here for decades, thoughtful human interaction welcome.
I decided that during the rest of the journey I was going to make eye contact with anyone who would allow, to see the reaction.
In seconds the payoff was bountiful. I received unsolicited smiles, hellos, a pick-up, and ran into someone I knew whom I probably would have walked right by unnoticed. The experiment needed no more than the walk from one train to the next train to feel its effects.
An article in Psychology Today states, “Who we look at, and for how long, can have far more impact than our words.” Powerful!
Looking someone in the eye is a crucial yet simple way to communicate. I’ve heard my Grandfather gazed at my Grandmother from across a dance floor and knew she the one for him.
In business, a person who looks one in the eye is seen as believable, confident, influential and professional.
The article cites a notable study: “People are shown two identical photographs of a woman with the only difference being that in one of them her pupil size is detectably (and artificially) enlarged to be double the normal, natural size. When asked to rate, which is more attractive, 60-80% will nominate the photo with the falsely dilated pupils. However, if you ask them to point out how the photographs differ, very few will be able to identify pupil dilation (or its manipulation); instead, they point to skin, hair texture, lips, or facial shape.”
It goes on to say that the eyes “also dilate when strong emotions like sexual excitement or rage are experienced,” which you can see in cats or dogs about to scuffle.
There certainly are times when we prefer to avoid eye contact. An elevator, religious confession, therapy session, while online, or on the phone. Those could be times of discomfort, insecurity, sadness or depression. When conversing about a difficult or embarrassing topic, it is normal to evade making eye contact.
Ever tried to get the attention of your wait staff, and he/she just won’t look your way? That’s her/him telling you he/she is just too busy (or disinterested) to attend to you right then. Frustrating, but a reality!
Early in my relationship, when my husband and I would have a difficult conversation he would say, “let’s talk about it the next time we’re in the car.” Men tend to want to talk about things side by side, while women face to face. I quickly nixed the idea of tackling difficult topics in the car -- not only can't we face each other, but it a distraction (you know, with driving and all), as well as confining. The front seat of a car not ideal if you need a bathroom break or to take a beat during a heated discussion.
Now of course you don’t want to stare at someone, or be aggressive in your desire to make eye contact. Especially in business where that can be interpreted as hostile.
A Forbes article cites “As a general rule, direct eye contact ranging from 30% to 60% of the time during a conversation – more when you are listening, less when you are speaking – should make for a comfortable productive atmosphere.”
So take a moment to consider: how is your eye contact? Is it warm, welcoming and engaging? Perhaps it is lacking and could use a little improvement?
I thought this list of tips to improve your eye contact skills a good one.
My subway experiment may be a bit too bold for most, but you get the idea. Today, try your own eye contact experiment and see how it feels. It could be with strangers or with those you know well. Perhaps it’s uncomfortable at first, but stay with it and gauge what happens. I’d love to hear about it! The bounties will likely will surprise you.
Marjorie, Chief MOJO Maker™