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Eye contact – myth or fact?


30 November 2023

Eye contact improves trust, and builds connections.  But does it?  We’re going to share our thoughts and knowledge on this subject to help you have better conversations and remove any unconscious bias so you can create a truly inclusive culture.

There have been a couple of topics that have been brought to our attention recently and we feel they really go hand in hand, the need to create an inclusive and diverse workplace where well being of employees is becoming front of mind and then the debate that eye contact and it’s role in human connection, building trust and respect, or so we’ve been taught in western cultures.

These two topics are actually more connected than we probably ever thought, and we feel it’s time we start to bust the myth and remove our conscious or unconscious bias on the subject, so we can start to lift a few more barriers on our road to inclusion.

So, let’s unpack eye contact.  Since the early-mid 1960’s, in the west, eye contact was believed it built meaningful and important connection, and shows respect and that you feel the person is important.  But Recent research is actually starting to prove otherwise.  For example if you study animals, eye contact doesn’t translate into an act of respect, animals give eye contact before they attack.  Recent studies, published in the European Journal of Psychology also reveals that when studying human’s in a negotiation environment, and work place, eye contact was often a sign of competition and malevolence.

How do these two topics relate?  Inclusion and Diversity covers many areas, culture, physical ability, neurodiversity, gender and age to name a few.  Let’s put a spot light on gender, culture and neurodiversity.

In many Eastern cultures, eye contact is considered rude.  For some cultures, giving eye contact to someone who is more Senior in role or age is a sign of disrespect.

Eye contact is also a sign of intimacy, research shows women will especially avoid holding eye contact of a man for too long as it can feel uncomfortable and may give off the wrong the signals.

For people with neurodivergence, mainly Austism and Adhd, their brains process information and stimuli differently to their neurotypical counterparts, they will avoid eye contact for a number of reasons:

  • They often feel overwhelmed, in a sensory way, by direct eye contact
  • Eye contact can feel unpleasant, uncomfortable, and distracting for them
  • There can be little to zero social motivation to make eye contact
  • They are unable to simultaneously follow both verbal language and a person’s eyes
  • Eye contact is reserved for a select few trusted connections; anything else feels confusing or even invasive.
  • They may feel uncertainty about how much eye contact is considered appropriate in society.
  • Making eye contact causes physical symptoms like headaches, palpitations, nausea, dizziness, and more.

If we look at all of this information, facts and reasonings and ask ourselves the question is eye contact truly a sign of trust and connection and attentiveness?  I hope you can now start to shift your perspective, and remove any bias you previously had and say no.  It’s really important to think of all of these scenarios, during all facets of working with people, during your hiring decisions, when having difficult conversations, during the performance review process and also in your one on one’s.

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