I noticed a disturbing trend this past weekend. I watched as my teenager used FaceTime, a video chat technology, with her friends. She had her phone pointing at the ceiling rather than at her face. After some questioning, I was told, “mom, this is how we do it. No one shows their face.” Later that day I watched a couple having lunch together. For the most part, they were on their cell phones the whole time. They’d talk occasionally, but rarely looked up at each other. These two observances made me wonder, are we losing the art of eye contact?
I started digging into trends and research in eye contact. I came across an interesting study which tells us that you don’t have to stare intently right into someone else’s pupils to reap the benefits of eye contact. If this is true, maybe we aren’t losing the ability to engage in eye contact. Maybe we are gaining new understanding into what it means and how it functions.
Researchers at Edith Cowan University used eye-tracking technology to revisit the importance and patterns of eye contact. Dr. Shane Rogers, who led the research said, “Maintaining strong eye contact is widely accepted to be an important communication skill in western cultures . . . People believe if you aren’t willing to engage in soul-to-soul mutual eye contact then you are at best lacking in confidence, at worst, untrustworthy . . . However, the reverence devoted to eye contact is not supported by scientific evidence.”
If you just did a double take at that statement, you aren’t alone. As I was reading the ECU research, I felt like one of the foundational pillars of communication was crumbling beneath me. Most of us have been taught that eye contact is paramount to connection and communication. But Rogers says that we don’t have to look directly in someone’s eyes to product the same connective results.
In the study, researchers held 4-minute conversations with the participants. Both parties wore eye tracking glasses during the conversation. The researchers divided the participants into two groups. In the first group, researchers stared mostly into the participants’ eyes during the conversation. In the second group, researchers stared mostly at the participants’ mouths during the conversation. Then both groups answered questions and rated their conversations.
The amount of direct eye contact had no effect on how the participants felt about the conversations. Rogers says this means that “people are not very sensitive to the specific gaze focus of their partner to their face; instead they perceive direct gaze towards their face as eye contact.” He goes on to say, ” So don’t get hung up on seeking out the eyes of your audience, just look generally at their face, and let the eye contact illusion . . . do the work for you.”
Not showing your face on FaceTime or a Zoom call, or not looking at your partner while dining are still ineffective and potentially harmful communication practices. This research doesn’t give us a pass from engaging. It just tells us that we can gaze at someone’s face without looking directly into their eyes and still connect with them.
For those of us who present, it’s still a good goal to look into the eyes of our audience members as often as possible. But this research helps take some of the pressure off. Because if what Rogers and his team discovered holds true, we can look at our audience’s faces and it will feel the same to them as if we were staring straight into their eyes.
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