Do you think about how long you’re making eye contact with someone when having a conversation? I don’t. Maybe because it’s never been an issue in my life, or maybe because I’m too self-centered and lazy to care, but it’s never occurred to me to worry about how long I gaze into other people’s eyes when I’m speaking with them. It’s an interesting question, though — maybe I’ve been doing it wrong my whole life — so I dug into the culture of “making eye contact,” and I’ve come back with ideas and questions, but no good answers.
What is the 50/70 rule?
If you search the internet for tips on proper eye contact you’ll find tons of links that mention the The “50/70 rule.” This edict states that you should be making eye contact with the person you’re conversing with about 50 per cent of the time when you are talking and 70% of the time when you are listening. And it sounds good — until you look into it a little.
The first glaring problem with the 50/70 rule is simple mathematics. If two people are using optimal eye-contact-timing, it doesn’t work out numerically. How can I make eye contact with someone 70% of the time when they’re making eye contact with me 50% of the time? That got me asking where the rule actually came from.
Some sites mention “studies at Michigan State University” as a source, but don’t link to the research. There’s this post from a professor at Michigan State University Extension, but its only links seems to be dead. I was able to find one study that indicates making eye contact 30% of the time allowed participants to retain more information from a speaker on a video call, but this doesn’t really apply. So, until I learn otherwise (and I really may have just missed the research), I’m going to assume the 50/70 rule is one of those things that sounds true, so people keep repeating it without checking.
Based on the research I can find (and the anecdotal experience of a lifetime of relatively “normal” social interactions), consciously controlling how long to look where (and when) while also maintaining a conversation would be extremely difficult and probably counterproductive.
If you don’t believe me, give it a try. My wife and I experimented with it, and we both found it nearly impossible to calculate the right percentages and distracting to try. It’s also creepy and ridiculous.
What is eye contact for, anyway?
If you tend to lean towards the analytical side of the human experience, nonverbal communication can be a bit puzzling sometimes because even though people are exchanging information through words, that’s only a small part of the reason they’re talking. The rest is rarely expressed or explained: we’re using nonverbal communication to build cooperation and empathy. This is (partly) achieved through mimicry: If things are going smoothly in a conversation, we’re mirroring each other as we speak and listen, and maintaining eye contact is one of the big ways we mirror others.
If the best way to build respect and friendship is through mirroring, it seems logical that the amount of eye contact we make should be based on how much eye contact the other person prefers. But it’s probably more complicated than that, because (if I’m reading these studies correctly) when people are talking, the amount of eye contact they make syncs up without anyone really knowing it or doing anything on purpose. Presumably, a long-gazer starts shortening their eye contact, and the eye-contact-averse person lengthens their stare as the two get to know each other. It’s a wildly subtle interplay, too — we seem to react to how often people blink, and sync our own blinks together.
I doubt it would be possible to synchronise your blinking and your amount of eye contact with someone else consciously, and I imagine trying to would lead to an unnatural, un-syncing gaze that would not foster empathy, respect, or friendship. Instead, it would probably gives the impression that you’re being weird.
There’s research that backs that up, too. Contrary to the widespread belief in the sales community that maintaining eye contact will help you persuade others, this study indicates heavy eye contact is less persuasive to listeners, perhaps because it’s unnatural. Not only that, listeners who maintain eye contact are less persuadable than those who don’t. This is eye contact as a kind of defence system, which seems like the opposite of what people are going for in friendly conversation. (Take this all with a grain of salt; it’s one study. This study says basically the opposite.)
But what should you do if you’re not good at eye contact?
Most online advice for people who are bad at eye contact includes the tip that you should practice talking to people and trying to make eye contact, and eventually it may begin to feel more natural. That might work for some, but a lot of people are bad at nonverbal communication, including those on the Autism spectrum.
Avoiding eye contact is hallmark of Autism that presents early in life and often never goes away. While many people on the spectrum can learn to do “better” at making eye contact (and reading facial expressions, understanding body language and other forms of nonverbal communication), many can’t. And I’m not sure why we’re asking them to.
If a person on the autism spectrum wants to be more “typical,” that’s cool, but expecting someone with autism to adhere to neurotypical behaviours (or even expecting them to want to) is a value judgment and a form of ableism. Instead, neurotypical people should make allowances. Neurotypical people showing understanding, patience, and empathy for different people is not only easy, it’s also good for the neurotypicals. I have some friends on the autism spectrum, and my life is richer for smoking pot with them. We don’t look each other in the eyes very much when we hang out, but it’s much easier for me to do than it would be for my pals to calculate the percentage of time they should be looking at my eyes, or trying to blink when I do.
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