The man who worked at the hotel was saying nice things – “It’s been great getting to know you and your family, I hope you’ve enjoyed your time here, my team and I wish you all the best.” He was smiling. His tone was pleasant. His body language was open.
So why didn’t his words ring true for me?
His eye contact – or lack thereof – undercut his message. I didn’t completely believe him because he couldn’t hold my gaze for more than a second. His repeated looking away from me seemed to say, “I don’t want to be here, I’m completely uncomfortable saying this, and I just want this to be over.”
The Eyes Have It
Eye contact plays a critical role in our face-to-face communications. It can also be misinterpreted and influence the conversation in both subtle and direct ways.
We often take eye contact for granted during conversations. During many social interactions in the United States, our eye contact follows a pattern: we make and maintain eye contact for a few seconds, break the connection, then repeat the cycle. This pattern conveys respect and lets the other person know that we’re focusing on the conversation.
What seems like a small thing can play a big role in how we feel about our communication partner. When this pattern is disrupted, we definitely notice. Social psychologist James Wirth’s 2010 research found that eye contact gives us some of our most important cues during social interactions.
So what might get in the way?
Self-confidence, shyness, differences in social status, cultural influences, and emotional reactions affect the level of eye contact people make with a conversational partner.
For me, the conversation I had with the (really quite nice) hotel staff person reminded me of two things:
1.) How influential eye contact is in a conversation, and
2.) I should get in the habit of checking my assumptions.
First, influence: I found myself reacting negatively during the conversation – and in turn, to the person – simply because of his lack of eye contact. Thinking back to other conversations I’ve had that didn’t go the way I’d hoped, I thought about what role my eye contact might have played. I’ve been in situations where I felt intimidated, nervous, or angry, and how I was making eye contact with the other person was different in each of those circumstances. The way I was (or wasn’t) making eye contact with my conversational partner probably negatively influenced how they reacted to me. I’ve also been on the receiving end of confusing eye contact from folks that made it that much harder to talk with them.
This encounter with the hotel staff person was a good reminder that I should pay attention to how I’m making eye contact. It also reinforced that I should check in with myself to be sure that my eye contact is supporting my message and intentions.
Second, assumptions: in this case, the man I was talking to was not American. His home culture likely has different perceptions of what “acceptable” eye contact is, especially when talking with someone of a different gender and a perceived difference in status (I was a customer, he was in customer service).
I realized that his perspective on what is “normal” or “socially acceptable” eye contact is probably different from mine. Not wrong, just different. In fact, when seen from his side, it’s quite possible that he found my level of eye contact to be aggressive and “too much!”
Thinking this through, I was able to readjust my take on how the conversation went. His difficulty in meeting my gaze might not actually have had much to do with me at all. With this in mind, I realized that I probably shouldn’t take it personally. Instead, I should chalk it up to the fact that communication is both a science and an art. Being generous in my thinking toward someone else means I can bring positive energy to what might otherwise be a challenging or frustrating encounter.