One of the smartest people I know — we’ll call her Michelle — sucks at maintaining eye contact. Even though eye contact ranks high on the average list of tips for how to make a good first impression. Even though eye contact nonverbally indicates attention. Interest. Engagement.
Even though, if nothing else, maintaining eye contact is polite.
None of that seems to matter to Michelle. She rarely makes eye contact. Occasionally, sure, but most of the time she looks away.
And she refuses — refuses — to take part in one-on-one Zoom meetings unless video is turned off.
Odd? Maybe. Rude? Seemingly.
But then there’s this: Research recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (h/t to Adam Grant) shows that during the most engaging conversations, eye contact ebbs and flows.
As the researchers write:
… when two people converse, their pupils periodically synchronize, marking moments of shared attention. As synchrony peaks, eye contact occurs and synchrony declines, only to recover as eye contact breaks.
These findings suggest that eye contact may be a key mechanism for enabling the coordination of shared and independent modes of thought, allowing conversation to both cohere and evolve.
Or in simple terms, if what you say makes me think, processing it may naturally cause me to look away. To think “independently.” To sift through your information or idea, match it to my own perspectives or mental models, and then re-engage.
When we agree, we tend to lock eyes. When we don’t agree — or, more likely, when we’re presented with something we haven’t considered — we tend to look away.
Not because we’re rude, but because we’re thinking. Which, first impression tips aside, is actually the sign of a great conversation.
Because great conversations make us think.
More from the researchers:
We find that eye contact is positively correlated with synchrony (Jeff: a fancy word for “I’m with you”) as well as ratings of engagement by conversation partners.
However, rather than elicit synchrony, eye contact commences as synchrony peaks and predicts its immediate and subsequent decline until eye contact breaks. This relationship suggests that eye contact signals when shared attention is high.
Furthermore, we speculate that eye contact may play a corrective role in disrupting shared attention (reducing synchrony) as needed to facilitate independent contributions to conversation.
Or in non research-speak, eye contact is the result of shared understanding, not the driver. Eye contact may make a good impression, but eye contact won’t create synchrony.
For that, we need to listen. We need to ask questions. Seek to understand. Challenge our own assumptions. Even though we are having a conversation, we also need to think independently.
That’s what Michelle does. She listens. She processes. She weighs and measures and considers. Looking away is actually a sign she’s giving the conversation her full attention.
Forcing her to do one-on-one Zoom meetings makes that difficult, because Zoom calls can feel performative. (Which is why smart bosses let their employees turn off their cameras during Zoom or MS Teams meetings.)
As the researchers write, “Eye contact may be a key mechanism for enabling the coordination of shared and independent modes of thought, allowing conversation to both cohere and evolve.”
So don’t be offended if someone doesn’t maintain constant eye contact. It may just be a sign you’ve given them food for thought.
Just like you hope they give you.
Because if a conversation doesn’t make you think, all the eye contact in the world may not make it worth having.