Growing up I absolutely hated making prolonged eye contact with people. And by prolonged I mean anything more than a few seconds. For some reason it freaked me out, made me think they were looking through me or into my soul or some strange reason. Whatever it was, I couldn’t stand it. I think it also went along with my fear of public speaking. So when it came time for me to join other student organizations, especially ones that were professional and promoted eye contact, it was a challenge.
But through practice I perservered and now I’m perfectly ok with it. After having so many interviews where I had to make efforts to maintain eye contact, it became easier and easier until now it’s just natural. I no longer have those old thoughts of, “stop staring at me!”
Why is eye contact important though? Well to answer that we must first address the huge elephant in the room that most people are thinking about, especially anyone from another culture or country. Not all cultures like eye contact. I’m reminding of a story I heard once in which a Principal of a school had two teachers come to him and complain about their students. One teacher said, “He won’t look me in the eye! It’s a total lack of respect!” The other said, “He always stares at me! He looks right at my eyes! It’s completely unacceptable and rude!” The Principal had two teachers on two extremes. One demanded eye contact, the other shunned it. They were obviously from very different cultures and upbringing.
So is it important to make eye contact? Well it depends. But what is really important is that you are comfortable doing it and you know when to do so. Whether or not you find it offensive, rude, or what not…you should be able to look across the table during an interview and maintain eye contact when it’s necessary. Work on it if you have to, but you don’t want to go into an interview and be turned down because you couldn’t look him in the eye.
Equally important is knowing how to figure out when to or when not to make eye contact. This takes just a small degree of conscious attention. When you talk to someone, especially a potential employer or an interviewer, gauge their actions. If they seem to be making eye contact, make sure that when you talk you do so as well. If they tend to stray from eye contact, don’t make them feel uncomfortable by staring at them. Find other ways to keep your eyes busy while keeping the flow of the conversation going. For example take notes, or show them examples of your work and explain while drawing their attention to it.
And please don’t make the mistake of being a creeper. Don’t STARE. There’s a difference between maintaining eye contact and staring. Staring is when you look at the person, barely blink (if at all), and just look right into their eyes the entire time without flinching. You should never do this. It’s highly uncofmortable. Instead, you should be treating it like you would a conversation with a friend, you make eye contact when making key points, but from time to time look over your notes, check out your surroundings, glance away, etc. Always come back and maintain eye contact, but don’t do so for too long. A lot of it is intuition and going with your gut feelings. Only through practice and experience will this really flush itself out and become natural though.
Just remember to make the conscious effort and it’ll work itself out. Not paying attention to what you’re doing though can really hurt your chances in an interview.