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Just When Should You Look a Person in the Eye?

Posted by Peter Post  October 8, 2013 07:00 AM

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Etiquette does change over time. Take, for instance, the issue of looking a person in the eye. The Emily Post Institute’s etiquette advice has been pretty consistent: Look a person in the eye because it is the way you connect and show your honesty and sincerity.

A recent report on NPR.org shed new light on the issue of looking a person in the eye, which gives an interesting twist to our advice.

According to the research, if you are dealing with a person positively, if you are in agreement with the person, if you are trying to radiate feelings of love or appreciation, then looking a person in the eye is to your benefit. But, if you are trying to change a person’s mind about something or if a person disagrees with you, then looking him or her in the eye seems to reinforce your differences rather than bridging the gap.

The study in the NPR story had forty-two university students view videos. The result: The students "who saw videos with content they disagreed with, who looked at the speakers' eyes changed their attitudes less than the people who looked at the speakers' mouths. They also said they were less interested in hearing more about the views presented."

One can only conclude, contrary to the etiquette advice we’ve offered for years, that if you are in an argument and you hope to change a person’s mind, then you might actually be better off looking at the person’s face in general, and focusing on the person’s mouth.

As a practical matter, what does this really mean? When you meet someone and shake hands, when you are in an interview for a job, when you are enjoying an evening out with friends, the etiquette advice holds true: Look ‘em in the eye. It’ll help you build the relationship. But when you get in an argument or disagreement with another person, then perhaps averting your gaze just slightly to another part of the person’s face might just help you convince him or her of your position or point of view.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers' questions in The Boston Sunday Globe's weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business" and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book "Essential Manners For Men" was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of "Essential Manners for Couples," "Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf," and co-author of "A Wedding Like No Other." Post is Emily Post's great-grandson. His media appearances include "CBS Sunday Morning," CBS's "The Early Show," NBC's "Today," ABC's "Good Morning America," and "Fox News."

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