How Long to Maintain Eye Contact?
Part 1

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We know that is vitally important to maintain eye contact in our communication, but does it mean that staring with unblinking eyes will grant us the favor of others?

Naturally no, at best it will only gain us the reputation of being fearless and very direct…

Eye contact is very emotional thing so maintaining it successfully is walking a fine line between too little and too much. You want to establish your credibility and confidence without being too threatening and direct.

What Does it Mean?

Eye contact is one of the factors that play a critical role in creating rapport and establishing first impression. The length of the gaze affects the type of relation:

If we talk numbers, research suggests that maintaining eye contact between 60-70 percent of the time is ideal for creating rapport. More than 2/3 of the time either shows a very friendly or hostile attitude. How to notice the difference?

Believe me, if someone is hostile towards you, you'll feel it… many other non verbal cues will indicate that kind of attitude. One of them is the differences in the size of the pupils.

If, on the other hand, you maintain low eye contact, less than 1/3 of the time of conversation - you'll probably be perceived as unfriendly, introvert, indecisive and not very trustworthy in general. I don't need to tell you it's a very unnerving feeling to talk to someone who won't meet your gaze.

Let's put numbers aside, because let's face it - it's all very nice for research but we can't truly measure it during an actual interaction. So to say it in simple words: if you want to create rapport and trust with your gaze you should strive to make as much eye contact as you can - So long as you feel comfortable enough to do so and without threatening the other person.

If you know yourself to be a little shy you probably need to maintain eye contact longer. If, on the other hand, you often see people avert their gaze and try to 'get away' from yours, maybe you're overdoing it.

shy eye contact

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Moral Looking Time

Let's talk a little about what happens when you overdo the eye contact.

Like the saying goes "The road to hell is paved with good intentions" so it goes even with "good body language". Eye contact is a very emotional thing, and when you make too much of it, you distort the message of friendliness to something more threatening or just plain weird.

Let's call the time it's socially-appropriate to look at someone - the 'moral looking time'.

This moral looking time can vary dramatically because it may be affected by many factors:

what do you mean too much eye contact...?

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  • How well do know this person?
  • What is your relation to him?
  • What is your status compared to theirs (superior – subordinate situations)?
  • Is it a group of people you're looking at or just a single person?
  • Is it male or female?
  • How close do you stand to that person?
  • What is appropriate by culture and custom?

These questions and more affect the moral looking time and our comfort in making eye contact in a current situation. We need to consider them and understand what kind of message we may send with 'too much eye contact'.

For example, it will be extremely weird and uncomfortable to maintain eye contact more than a split of-a second with a stranger on an elevator. Next time you're in one, pay attention to where other people look in this uncomfortable situation.

The issue of culture is also a big one, because in some cultures it's considered rude to maintain eye contact or even create one (in Japan, for example, the custom is to look at the neck, rather the eyes, during conversation).

If we talk about gender, than if it's a male-female case - prolonged eye contact can send, naturally, a message of sexual interest. Male to male lengthy gaze often considered hostile, and female to female usually reveal a more competitive nature.

In work, if you hold your gaze too much with your superior you send a message of defiance and disagreement. With your subordinate it can be considered as reprimanding or suspicions attitude.

Before We Jump to Conclusions

Don't let these factors confuse you or make you start calculate how long do you need to look at someone. You already know instinctively what an appropriate and inappropriate gaze is.

I just want you to consider the message you want to send:

If your goal is to intimidate, so holding a staring, unblinking gaze is the way to go (if you got the guts to hold it…) if you want to create rapport and trust – maintain a healthy and comfortable eye contact, you don't need to count the seconds (:

Drawing suspicious looks from strangers...

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Now that we've answered the "how long?" question, let's move on to the next one:

I know that many feel that it's hard to and sometimes weird to maintain eye contact, so in the next post the purpose is to give some tips to handle that:

Part 2 - How to make and maintain eye contact  

Or you just can return to Eye Contact section

or the homepage – Study Body Language for more great info

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