When You Make Eye Contact, Do You Look Careless, Confident, Or Creepy?

Somewhere between nervous glances and unnerving gapes is the eye contact sweet spot. Let’s see what it looks like.

When You Make Eye Contact, Do You Look Careless, Confident, Or Creepy?

Which is worse: the guy texting as he talks to you or the girl that locks her gaze onto you throughout a meeting? And what does all this say about hierarchy?


If you look at the Wall Street Journal‘s recent piece on eye contact (and the awesome graphic that accompanied it) it’s quite a lot. Let’s break the findings down on the sliding scale of attentiveness: careless, confident, and creepy.


According to communications-analytics company Quanitifed Analytics, adults make eye contact between 30% and 60% of the time while speaking to individuals or groups, yet they should make eye contact 60% to 70% of the time.

What’s keeping us from contact?

One hindrance is, as ever, our devices: As the Atlantic argued last year, smartphones and tablets may have enabled epidemics of loneliness and narcissism.

The Journal names one narcissistic practice that will drive people away from you: the “common feint” of texting while keeping eye contact, is “not only difficult but also comes off as phony.” And if you’re the boss in the room, getting lost in your email tells your team that they’re not important. Even worse, if you avert your eyes altogether, you’ll come off as untrustworthy or unknowledgeable.


You don’t want to be the person that’s thumbing at their smartphone throughout a conversation and you don’t want to rest your gaze on someone with menacing affections–so what is the happy medium?


The Goldilocks of eye contact comes in two flavors: If you’re in a one-on-one setting, hold eye contact for 7 to 10 seconds; while if you’re in a group, shorten that to 3 to 5 seconds–that’s according to Ben Decker, CEO of Decker Communications, a San Francisco-based training and consulting firm.

But there’s more going on here, too: like the way people queue up in the elevator, eye contact reveals office pecking order. Studies show that people thought of as influential get a lot of eye contact, while those lacking in influence don’t. What’s more, the latter study finds, people use eye contact as a way of dominating a room–which is a little terrifying.


Intent stares can be unnerving: An Applied Neuropsychology study had questioners gaze into their subjects’ eyes while administering tests–and it hampered the test-takers’ working memory. (Note to self: A staredown is not the way to make a good first impression.)

The Journal also talked with Marisa Benson, an administrative manager who perfectly captured the grossness of the gape:

“If somebody has eye contact with you for more than 20 seconds,” she says, “it’s like, ‘Ooh. There’s that icky part.”

Is the Boss Looking at You? You’d Better Hope So.


[Image: Flickr user E. E. Piphanies]


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.