On today’s edition of “Is it just me?”, I’m tackling a couple questions that literally no one has ever asked me regarding conversational eye contact.

Question #1: It isn’t possible for me to focus on both eyes of my conversation partner at the same time (at least not without blankly staring through the person like a sociopath). So, when making eye contact during a conversation, should I focus on my conversation partner’s left eye or right eye? Or, should I focus on the bridge of his or her nose in the middle?

Question #2: What is the appropriate amount of time to maintain eye contact during a conversation? 10% of the time? 90% of the time? 50% of the time?

As you can tell, I’m a fan of overthinking pretty much everything…including social norms that most people inherently know and don’t reduce to awkward statistical analysis.

Anyhow, if you have ever wondered the answers to these ridiculous questions, I have some good news for you! I found answers.

1. When making eye contact during a conversation, should you look at the right eye or left eye?

According to Ryan Corte, OD on Quora: “Whatever eye you feel more comfortable doing so! Honestly, this typically isn’t a problem unless you’re very close to the person you’re making eye contact with. NOW, if the person you’re making eye contact with has an eye turn (i.e. lazy eye) it is polite to look at the eye that is looking straight ahead.”

Did you know that Wikihow has an entire “how to” guide devoted to eye contact? I didn’t either…until today. Here it is: https://www.wikihow.com/Look-People-in-the-Eye. According to the guide, it doesn’t matter which eye you focus on. Just pick one eye.

“If it helps, try moving back and forth between the two eyes, rather than staying focused on one. Keep focused on one for 10 seconds or so, then switch to the other.”

The Wikihow guide goes on to encourage you to practice eye contact techniques on yourself in a mirror and/or practice with a TV. I highly encourage this—not because I think it is a particularly helpful practice, but because the mental image of people practicing eye contact in a mirror is hilarious to me.

Final answer: It doesn’t matter which eye you focus on, but pick one (as opposed to looking at the bridge of the nose between or trying to stare at both eyes at the same time). Also, after picking one eye to focus on, it’s a good idea to casually and periodically shift eye-contact to the other eye.

2. What is the appropriate amount of time to maintain eye contact during a conversation?

I found this article by Michigan State University: https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/eye_contact_dont_make_these_mistakes

According to the article, you should use the 50/70 rule. From the article:

  • Use the 50/70 rule. To maintain appropriate eye contact without staring, you should maintain eye contact for 50 percent of the time while speaking and 70% of the time while listening. This helps to display interest and confidence.
  • Maintain it for 4-5 seconds. Once you establish eye contact, maintain or hold it for 4-5 seconds. After this time passes, you can slowly glance to the side and then go back to establishing eye contact.

According to a separate article by Forbes (https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolkinseygoman/2014/08/21/facinating-facts-about-eye-contact/):

“As a general rule, though, direct eye contact ranging from 30% to 60% of the time during a conversation – more when you are listening, less when you are speaking – should make for a comfortable productive atmosphere.”

Final Answer: Maintain eye contact approximately 50% of the time while speaking and 70% of the time while listening.

Additional resources

Here are a few more eye-contact-related tips and resources for the nerdily-inclined:

How long should you hold eye contact? According to the following quote from a Business Insider article, greater than 1 second, but less than 9 seconds. https://www.businessinsider.com/heres-how-long-you-should-hold-eye-contact-2016-7 (The article cites this study: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.160086)

“On average, the participants were most comfortable with eye contact that lasted just over three seconds. Looking at the distribution of preferences, the vast majority of participants preferred a duration between two and five seconds. No-one preferred eye contact durations of less than a second or longer than nine seconds.”

Here’s a tip from Kara Ronin:

“Make sure that when you’re in a conversation, that you’re actually in the conversation. Show interest and connect with the other person by maintaining eye contact. If you feel a bit awkward staring into someone else’s eyes, try this little trick: Draw an imaginary inverted triangle on the other person’s face around their eyes and mouth. During the conversation, change your gaze every five to 10 seconds from one point on the triangle to another. This will make you look interested and engrossed in the conversation.” (https://www.themuse.com/advice/4-reasons-why-you-dont-get-noticed-at-networking-events-and-she-does)

Apparently there’s an entire book on the subject of eye contact: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0061782211/. Full disclosure: I have not read this book.

So, there you have it. You’re welcome. I hope that this information causes you to overthink your eye contact in every conversation you have for the foreseeable future…just like it has caused me to do.