Behavioral Science

The Eyes Have it. Practical Eye Contact Tips They Don’t Teach in Business School

by . July 24th, 2014

“Proper eye contact” isn’t always something we think entrepreneurs should master. But business involves people – and emotions. And as emotions go, the eyes really can be windows to your soul.


Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry. Taken December 1984 for National Geographic.
Eyes can be a better indicator of how one actually feels than other bodily or verbal cues. In most contexts for example, when someone averts their eyes, it’s a clear indicator that they do not wish to directly engage you, or perhaps they feel that they are in an inferior position to yours. Direct eye contact in lesser degrees can indicate familiarity. Continued eye contact can be a sign of intimacy.

Learning how to use eye contact to your advantage is a worthwhile skill for all entrepreneurs. We’re not just talking about professional poker players here. Every time you engage someone face-to-face, practical knowledge of ocular cues might very well be the thing that shifts the results of those interactions into your favor.

Don’t sweat it.

If you want to make lots of friends – or grow a pool of business contacts, initiating eye contact is critical. We’re much more likely to humanize people with whom we’ve got direct eye contact. A study suggests that a lot of internet trolling and arguments happen not because of the lack of direct contact necessarily, but largely because we don’t get to look people in the eyes.

Many people (such as myself) fear rejection and don’t initiate eye contact as a result. While there will always be a chance you’ll get rejected, the odds of this are much lower than one might expect. Multiple studies point to a “Reciprocity principle“, where humans feel obligated to return favors based on social and even physical cues.

Chances are good that if you initiate contact in a positive way, that your advances will be returned positively. Eye contact is just a part of how you approach people though, so pay attention to your other bodily cues and what you say as well.

Benefits to maintaining better eye-contact

You’ll notice I mentioned “better” not “longer”. While there are certainly more people in my limited experience who have trouble maintaining enough eye contact, there are a select few who have the opposite problem – they intrude into your space by meeting your gaze far too directly and too often.

With the right amounts of eye contact, you should be able to gain more credibility, have someone’s undivided attention, seem more emotionally grounded, and appear more confident. It’s hard to find situations where you wouldn’t want any of those things.

The benefits of these include:

  • Better sales pitches
  • A more synchronized team
  • A higher chance of building lasting, positive relationships with clients, co-workers and other professional contacts

Creating audience impact.

DCF 1.0
Eye contact is not just for one-on-one conversations either. Observe anyone you would consider a good storyteller, and they invariably use their eyes not just to connect with specific people, but to express emotions so that they are clear to more than one person.

Most successful live bands use eye contact as part of their craft in order to hook their audience and get them more involved in their music. A recent study has shown that they might actually be onto something.  Researchers have demonstrated that a musician’s gaze towards their audience can impact how they feel about their music.

The same principles hold true for any public engagement. Maintaining proper levels of eye contact does wonders not just for bands, but for anyone who needs to address and connect with an audience. If anything, eye contact can be even more important when speaking in public. After all, you can’t always expect people to directly tell you what they’re thinking in these situations.

Your audience’s gaze will  tell you what they can’t express verbally. Their faces will also help you gauge the mood, allowing you to alter your approach so that you all have a better understanding of each other. You simply cannot get this vital information without at least trying to look them in the face.

Cultural differences


In more egalitarian, meritocratic societies, there is a tendency for direct eye contact to be more desirable. The opposite is generally true in most societies where social class and prestige is held at a premium.

In the Western context, higher levels of eye contact tends to make one seem more honest, trustworthy, confidence, and attentiveness. In American or Western European classrooms and boardrooms, listeners signal interest by looking directly at the speaker. Looking away would often signal a lack of interest, or even disrespect.


Learning-about eye contact in other cultures  BrightHub Education


In the East Asian context however, direct eye contact is something you should never give superiors, or strangers. Direct eye contact is often seen as aggressive, and impertinent — if not outright disrespectful.

As far as listening is concerned, East Asians usually take the opposite direction from their Western counterparts in school and business meetings. Japanese listeners in most contexts will often close their eyes to concentrate better on what a speaker is saying – a trope extremely familiar to those who’ve watched enough anime. or Japanese films.

Some cultures, particularly those in the Middle East, also hold different social conventions depending on gender. You might not be able to look at women in the same way you look at men.

Of course those are sweeping generalizations, and there will always be outliers from the cultures mentioned. However, it’s important to understand that your approach towards eye contact has to be altered depending on your audience. An approach that you’d find appropriate for an American audience might not fly so well in the Middle East, or China.

What about sunglasses?

Generally not a good idea. While some people could make it work – like the late, great Mitch Hedberg, for example – sunglasses will tend to make you look more intimidating precisely because other people can’t see your eyes. On the flip side, this very fact can make some people feel more calm, and actually help them better communicate.


Even with STELLAR material, Mitch Hedberg had trouble winning live audiences over with his delivery style.

If you have to use sunglasses to feel comfortable or for say, a medical condition, the rule of thumb is that classic shapes and lighter, non-mirrored lenses are the way to go, rather than the types more commonly used for extreme outdoor conditions. This will help you look friendlier and keep your audience more at ease.


This might seem obvious, but maintaining proper eye contact not something they teach you at business school. Knowing the deal behind eye contact is integral not just for figuring out what other people might be thinking, but also for helping you cultivate the charisma necessary to lead and maintain an enterprise.

What an entrepreneur should try is to be able to maintain enough eye contact to gain someone’s trust — but not too much that they are uncomfortable.

In short, it’s possible to gain a loyal customer or win over a client (or lose them) based on how you use eye contact.


Image Credits: Santiago Sito via photopin cc,  James Ellsworth via photopin cc, Jonathan Kos-Read via photopin cc,  Naud/ via photopin cc, MattBritt00 via photopin cc, martinak15 via photopin cc  , Wayne Large via photopin cc


Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.

%d bloggers like this: