Look at Me: The Business Etiquette of Eye Contact

Sep 9, 2015 | Insights, Skills

My phone rang while I was in the queue to pay at the supermarket. It was my husband, and I thought I’d just say hi. It would be quick.

But maybe not quick enough.

When I got to the front I felt the pangs of guilt when I finally looked up and noticed the check-out woman glare as I talked on. Was I really one of those people?

Have you noticed how having mobile phones gives us all liberty to demonstrate horribly anti-social behavior? Whether we are walking along the street texting, oblivious to others, ignoring each other while we play on our phones at the dinner table, or talking on the phone while we pay for our coffees, we are neglecting basic social skills that we learned as children.

According to Ofcom, 93% of British adults own a mobile phone and research tells us that a stunning 84% of us would not go a single day without our device.

There are great benefits to this connectivity, personally and at work. These tools allow us to be more globally networked. They support flexible working. They create the conditions for faster information sharing. They help us be more efficient and productive, able to manage more, and be more informed.

Sadly, though, the same research that shows the positive benefits to this connectivity says that 35% of people use their phone while playing with their children and 32% use their phones while driving their cars. And all of this phone use drastically reduces the amount of eye contact we have with one another. Even Queen Elizabeth apparently misses looking people in the eye.

Eye Contact Rules

While there are varying cultural expectations, and some cultures see a direct gaze as disrespectful, eye contact is an important part of business etiquette in the United States and most of Europe. As a general rule, making appropriate eye contact in these countries signals respect, empathy and inclusion.

While there is debate over the details, the basic rules are relatively simple:

  1. Look at someone when they are speaking to you: Specialists debate if it should be 30-60 percent, 70 percent or something else in between, but what is generally agreed is that you should look at someone more when listening than when you are speaking.
  2. Blink and nod normally: One of the goals of eye contact is to help convey that you are paying attention. By nodding and gesturing appropriately, you help the speaker interpret your eye contact in the way it’s intended. For many people this blinking and nodding comes naturally when actively listening. If you struggle with eye contact, you may need to think more about responding to the speaker with nods and other gestures to indicate you are appropriately engaged.
  3. Don’t stare: Most all cultures agree that extended eye contact is creepy and inappropriate. Look away after a few seconds and then look back again to avoid the sense that you are staring.

My Commitments: Going Back to Basics

If you, like me, feel you’re slipping into bad behaviour with your phone use and have forgotten the art of eye contact, there are steps you can take to make amends. Given my annoyance with those people who use their phones and ignore those around them, I have made some personal commitments to make some small but consistent changes:

  1. No phones at the table: A couple of years ago, my husband and I went to dinner on Valentine’s Day at an amazing local restaurant. At the table next to us there was a couple who each spent the entire evening on their phones, sitting across from each other but not communicating with each other at all. Partially in response to observing this, we made a family commitment to put away phones while we are at the table. I have always felt that the dinner table is a great place to connect as a family at the end of the day, and phones and other devices get in the way of that. By putting away our own phones, we also role model what we expect from our daughter. If you extend this to the workplace, consider putting away your phone for an hour and use lunchtime as an opportunity to connect with your colleagues sitting next to you.
  1. Thank you with a smile: A few months ago I started practicing basic eye contact in stores. When I buy something from someone, I look them in the eye when I order. When I get my change or receipt, I look at them and smile when I say thank you. This seems pretty simple and expected, but when I started deliberately practicing it I realized I really wasn’t doing it consistently before. And, as above,┬áthis can be extended to the workplace and to your peers. It is amazing how it changes the level of connection you feel with the people you interact with on a daily basis.
  1. Try videoconferencing: I spend many hours every day in virtual meetings. Until recently nearly all of these were conference calls. I didn’t see the people I was speaking with, but I could hear their voices. This meant I could stand up, walk around, make a cup of tea or even (gasp) check email while we were meeting. Now because I cared about these conversations, I made every effort to focus and want to believe I was successful. But what I missed was eye contact. I didn’t even realize it until I turned on the video, but by seeing the other person’s face, and by focusing on the screen, I increase my active listening and feel a stronger connection to those I’m meeting. Recently I was in a video call with a number of managers and one of them had her camera facing side on, so we saw her profile. She was a very active contributor on the call, but the feedback at the end was that her peers wanted her to move her camera so they could see her properly.

Eye contact. It matters more than you’d expect.