Driven by our work and research in customer experience we are confronted with the importance of eye-cntact every day. Imagine a waiter in a restaurant, a cashier in the supermarket or a bank teller never looking you in the eye. Not even for a moment. Sounds weird, but it happens more than you’d think.
Eye contact is a skill. Our eyes not only see for us, but they are also a mode of communication. It’s amazing how much information can be conveyed in a split second. Like the bus driver making quick eye contact with every passenger entering at the front door: “you are entering my bus. I want you to respect the rules and please, don’t cause trouble.”
Eye contact is the most powerful tool when you’ll need to make a fast connection. Eyes can literally tell a story and here are three steps that can help you make even better use of your eyes:
Our eyes are the only part of our brain that is directly exposed to the world. Through eye-contact, we are dealing with the mind of another person. And based on how much they meet our eyes or look away when we are talking to them, we make assumptions about their personalities. Eye contact makes us more aware that the other person has a mind and perspective of their own. In turn, this makes us more self-conscious. Gazing into another person’s eyes is incredibly powerful. It’s not the eyes, it’s two brains connecting. Use it wisely.
It takes about two seconds to read this sentence. In the world of eye-contact that’s an eternity. Here are some helpful rules about timing:
Category one: ‘The Split second’
Always below one second. It’s the quick check-in of the cashier in the supermarket or the pedestrian that crosses the street looking at the driver in the approaching car. The message is short and precise: ‘I see you’ or ‘I know you’re there’. Use the ‘Split Second’ as much as you want and as much as you can. It connects you with the environment around you.
Category two: ‘The Uber’
More than a second, not more than two seconds. You’re getting into a stranger’s car, even when you’ve booked it via a trusted mobility service. Naturally, that person wants to know a little more about you. Uber drivers must make a quick due diligence if it is safe to have you in the car.
Category three: ‘Deeper Interest’
This is where brains start connecting on a deeper level. Like friends who haven’t seen each other in a while. Or when we’re meeting someone new. Very tricky about this one: everything over 3.2 seconds is a stare and gets you into the ‘creepy zone’.
Our foveal vision is the central gaze which allows us to see objects in fine detail. This is the main ‘tool’ to make eye contact with others, engage with them, and give them our full attention. The peripheral vision on the other hand occurs outside the central gaze and is used for seeing large objects and organizing the broad spatial scene. It’s about paying attention to what’s happening in our periphery.
The good receptionist in a hotel uses her peripheral vision to become aware of all the waiting guests, of which some might have a potentially urgent matter. She then ideally throws them a ‘split second’, acknowledging their presence. We love those receptionists compared to those who chose not to look at us until it’s our rightful turn. Skillfully managing our environment with our eyes is an art – and not only helpful in hotels.
Eye-Contact is an essential element of service culture. In the early 2000s, Chick-fil-A leaders tapped a marketing executive to overhaul its entire service strategy, which included training workers to greet customers with a smile, speak in an enthusiastic voice and make eye contact. Eye contact is good for business. With one caveat – we’ll need to take culture into account. It’s important to recognize the different ways direct eye contact can be interpreted by various cultures. While it is a sign of honesty and integrity in the US and most European countries, the reverse is true in other cultures.
The below picture offers an alternative that has the same ‘I see you’- effect but is less intrusive. Visualize an inverted triangle with the top line horizontal along the person's eyes and the bottom tip on their chin. In a professional encounter, flip the triangle so it covers their eyes and forehead.
Eye contact is a superpower. We often don’t pay too much attention to it, but it is one of those things you don’t notice until you notice it’s not there.