I’m losing out on job offers because I don’t make enough eye contact

A reader writes:

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been told I make eye contact less often than other people do. My dad’s constant refrain from about age 8 onward was “stand up straight and look people in the eye!” I’ve done my best over the years to improve the length/frequency of my eye contact in conversation, and I try to be especially conscious of it during interviews. (The standing up straight took care of itself after I finished being a teenager!)

Now, as a 40-year-old adult, it doesn’t seem to affect my personal life adversely at all. None of my friends or acquaintances has ever brought it up to me unsolicited, and on the rare occasion I ask if they notice it I get reactions that are about 50/50 “Oh sure, when you first meet people I kind of notice that” to “Huh. It’s literally never occurred to me.” So I don’t think I’m really that far outside the range of whatever “normal” is for other people. I’m friendly and cheerful, not someone who mumbles and stares at her shoes.

I have, however, on two separate occasions been told through the grapevine (friends who passed on anonymous feedback from search committees) that I didn’t get a job because my lack of eye contact made me seem like I was nervous or uncomfortable. Both of these situations were interviews where I actually felt very confident and was intentionally being mindful of remembering to make eye contact more often than I typically do, so it felt especially frustrating to be told that it was the deciding factor. Further detail: these were both jobs in academia that don’t have a public-facing component. I would have been working with other academic colleagues and faculty. I wouldn’t be surprised to be told that the way I make eye contact might bar me from, say, a job in sales, but it was incredibly shocking for the types of jobs I apply for.

So how do I deal with this? I know that two jobs lost over the course of a career is not a large number, but it makes me wonder how often this has affected my candidacy and I *haven’t* been told about it. I’m all for continuous improvement and will continue to work on this, but frankly after 30 years of this feedback at home and on the job I sometimes want to just sigh and say, “Look. This is it. This is my face. Problem?” I guess I’m looking for ways to deal emotionally, since I know it’s hardly something I can bring up to employers. And I suppose I hope that this letter might make hiring managers think about how much weight they’re giving to their interpretation of body language, instead of the candidate’s actual skills for the job. Some days I wish I’d been born in Japan, where my style of eye contact would be considered an asset!

This is going to be a frustrating answer because I’m going to answer a different question than what you asked, but I don’t think there’s a solution here other than to work on your eye contact.

I get that it feels unfair — what does your eye contact have to do with your ability to perform the job, after all? — but interviews aren’t just about identifying the candidate who will perform a particular job best; for many roles, anyone who reaches the interview stage has the basic qualifications to do the job, and the interview is about figuring out who will have the best rapport with the manager and team and be easiest to work with. And hiring managers are making those judgments fairly quickly, because they don’t have much alternative to that.

Rightly or wrongly, people do read lack of eye contact as “not comfortable.” And “not comfortable” can be a real rapport killer. It’s understandable that if an interviewer is talking to multiple qualified candidates, they might gravitate toward ones they have good rapport with. And that can be especially true in academia, since once they hire you, you’re likely to be around for a long time, even decades.

I’m sure this is quite annoying, because you sound like someone who probably has great rapport with all sorts of people, but interviews are by their nature about quick judgments, and when humans are making quick judgments, things like body language and eye contact count for a lot. It sucks, but it’s true.

If you can make yourself stare at the bridge of your interviewer’s nose for an hour (which will look like eye contact), I think that’s the easiest path to solving this.

{ 140 comments… read them below }

  1. Madtown Tanya*

    Right on, Alison! Just pick a spot on the face near the interviewer’s eyes, and focus on that. As someone who’s part of the autism community, I can relate to eye contact troubles!

    1. Jamie =^_^= (in lieu of avatar)*

      This! As a kid I had endless criticism about my lack of eye contact – I’d look up at the ceiling. Even when I was totally comfortable and not stressed I’d do it. I absolutely make direct eye contact when it’s something emotionally important or I’m super pissed and very quietly making my point while I drill into your soul.

      As an adult I just go eyebrows – I can’t tell you what color most of my colleages eyes are, but I can tell you each one’s brow grooming habits (or lack of.) I taught this to my son who is on the autistic spectrum and he uses it, too, so I know it works because I’ve had various therapists/teachers etc tell me how surprising it was that he makes such good eye contact.

      Funny thing is, I know when he’s doing it to me! So if I am saying something super meaningful and I need it I will let him know and then he drops his gaze to my eyes.

      I got the bridge of nose suggestion as a kid, but my face must be weird because when I do that, trying to get both my eyes to look at a midpoint my face scrunches up and I look like I’m focusing.

      1. Muriel Heslop*

        That’s great! I worked with autistic teens for many years, and we coached them to look at people’s eyelashes. People blinked and that triggered eye movement in our kids so they wouldn’t stare unwaveringly, which can be disconcerting. Eyebrows are good too, of course. We taught that to some students who found it too hard to focus on eyelashes (mascara critiques, etc.)

        1. Catherine in Canada*

          Wow! Thank you for this suggestion.
          As a recently-diagnosed aspie, I was aware that this was an problem but wasn’t sure what to do about it. Making eye contact is actually painful in a way, like trying to keep your hand in too hot water, and this will really help.

          1. L McD*

            That’s a really good description. I’m not on the spectrum that I know of, but I have social anxiety and I’ve always described it as something like fingernails on a chalkboard. Hot water’s a lot more evocative.

      2. Koko*

        One of my favorite party tricks is to be talking to someone and then pause and ask if they’re looking at my right eye or my left eye. Most people unconsciously make eye contact with a single point and choose one eye without thought, but once you call attention to it they can’t not notice which one they’re picking!

    2. Sigrid*

      I stare at people’s lips — it’s close enough that I look like I’m looking them in the eyes, and it helps me understand what they’re saying.

      1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

        Right on if this works for you, but that sounds uncomfortable to me – I can definitely tell when someone is looking at my lips instead of my eyes or face. Try this: Have someone look at your eyes, then drop their eyes to your lips, then back up. It definitely feels like they want to kiss you.

      2. Sharon*

        Actually, I can tell when someone is staring at my lips and I find it a little disconcerting. It makes me wonder what they’re thinking.

        1. Case of the Mondays*

          They are probably slightly hard of hearing and have naturally learned to accommodate by reading lips at the same time as listening to fill in the gaps.

          1. Loose Seal*

            This is me. I can hear but I need the lip movement to help me understand what you are saying, especially if there is any sort of background noise or if I really need to concentrate on what you’re saying (like in an interview).

            1. Preludes*

              This can bean aspergers thng too, i think. One of my friends who has it has often reminded me that if i cover my mouth up (for example, with a scarf when it’s freezing outside) that he has real trouble understanding what i’m saying, so he kind of lip reads to help communication. I havent really noticed him looking at my lips, but he must be so there’s another explanation.

          2. Not So NewReader*

            This. I have a tiny amount of hearing loss. Teeny-tiny. But if a person uses a word or name that I am not familiar with, I might miss it, my eyes go directly to their lips so that I can catch it if they repeat it.

            I think interview situations are hard because that eye contact is required for a longer period of time than you would find in situations during an average work day. Maybe you have this idea covered already, OP, but I was wondering if you bring a notebook to interviews. The process of jotting down a quick note here and there might be enough to minimize the effect they are seeing.

            One last comment that has nothing to do with anything- It is never a good idea to keep harping on something a person does, usually that means they do it more not less. It does not go well. My parents used to get on me for biting my nails. I only stopped biting my nails after I left the house. Their constant harping made me more nervous so I bit my nails more. Once left to my own devices on the matter, I just stopped. (It was such a natural thing, that I didn’t even realize I had stopped, until months later.) OP, something to consider, because if you have a history of people pointing it out to you that could exasperate what is actually a smaller problem. (Please read that as I am agreeing with you, that people need to get over it.)

      3. Lynn*

        Careful with this. I can definitely tell when people are looking at my lips and not my eyes. It makes me SUPER uncomfortable…

    3. Anonymoose*

      I realized that I never actually look at anyone’s eyes when they are speaking – I look at their mouths (the part that’s actually moving!). I couldn’t tell you any of my colleagues’ eye colors, but I could tell you all about their teeth. But really, as long as you are looking at the person’s FACE, I think it will read as “eye contact”.

    4. MaryMary*

      A friend of mine gave me advice for making 1:1 eye contact in situations where it can seem like you are awkwardly staring at someone (specifically, interviews but also first dates). She said to alternate between looking at one eye, the other eye, and the person’s mouth. Moving between three points gives you something to break up the awkward staring without taking your eyes off the person with whom you’re making a connection.

    5. Liz*

      I was legally blind until the age of 5 and various stages of visually impaired after that. Eye contact is really, really hard for me to remember. Especially since it’s usually an awkward focus length for me and my eyes go in and out of focus and I end up with headaches.

      Still do it at interviews, though, because you have to look normal.

  2. fposte*

    Yeah, this is pretty deeply wired in people. I think it’s going to take a lot less effort for you to change your eye contact than to change a culture’s nonverbal signs. And even if it’s not a public-facing job, you’re presumably still working with other humans, and it’s quite likely they’ll have, at least at first, a similar reaction.

    (And in my experience, friends aren’t going to be the best source on this. They already like you, and they’re going to notice less and say even less than that.)

  3. Ezri*

    I have a real problem with this as well – ever since I was a kid holding direct eye contact for extended periods makes me anxious and uncomfortable. I’ve trained myself to look at people’s facial areas when possible, but my natural inclination is to fix on a point near their heads. It’s not intentional, it’s just what I do. In interviews it takes almost a physical wrench to meet the interviewers eyes, but it’s something I had to train myself to do whenever I’m speaking or listening in that type of situation.

    My husband, on the other hand, locks eye contact in like an iron vise whenever he talks to anyone. Creeped me the heck out when we were dating. Everyone is different, it’s just that you and I are on the end of the stick that might get interpreted the wrong way. It stinks, but as Alison said it could happen in an interviewing situation.

    1. Nerd Girl*

      “I have a real problem with this as well – ever since I was a kid holding direct eye contact for extended periods makes me anxious and uncomfortable”

      Me too! And then I don’t make eye contact which makes me anxious that I am coming off looking nervous or uncomfortable. It’s a wicked circle.

  4. The IT Manager*

    I’m with you, LW. I have the same problem, but while the lack of eye contact may be the root cause, your problem is that people interpret that to mean something – usually that the person who won’t make eye contact is uncomfortable, shifty, untrustworthy, and maybe lying. It sucks, but you can’t change that, and I can’t imagine you can trying to explain to interviewers that you tend not to make eye contact but it doesn’t mean what they would normally interpret that body language to mean. It just won’t work.

  5. Cath in Canada*

    This sounds like the kind of situation a hired interview coach might be able to help with (practicing with friends would probably be less helpful, because you’re already comfortable with them).

    I also just wanted to say that, having been in various roles in academia for 14 of my 16 years in the workforce, the amount of eye contact in many departments seems to be below the population average. Once you get past that interview, the work environment itself won’t be a problem :)

  6. just laura*

    Even if a job isn’t customer-facing, it’s still people-facing. Interpersonal skills are so essential to our success personally and professionally.

    I wonder about taking steps like you would with shyness or something, like being intentional about networking. Find an area where you really enjoy interacting with people– volunteering, teaching a subject, etc.– and use that to improve that skill.

    Good luck, OP!

    1. MKR*

      OP, you might consider joining a Toastmasters club near you. It may help to get some speaking practice and confidence, and they’re generally a very supportive environment.

  7. Magda*

    Oh man. Not much to add but sympathies, OP. Making eye contact for extended periods of time always makes me feel like I’m engaged in some baboon-like dominance diplay. I have found the trick of looking at a spot in the middle of someone’s forehead to be helpful.

  8. Janis*

    I was just thinking in a meeting yesterday how odd it was that “Betty” can’t maintain eye contact for more than a few moments before she has to break away and look elsewhere. And I’m not implying that I stare at people in a weird Rasputin-like mesmerizing gaze. I agree with the person above who said it must be hard wired in us. Not much to add except that it is noticeable and you might want to try staring at someone’s nose.

  9. Chinook*

    OP, I am going to come at this from a different angle but start by saying that I agree with AAM 100% – you have to atleast learn tof ake eye contact (I look at someone’s nose or ear) because it is the cultural norm for the average N. American and you will be judged, atleast subconciously, on it.

    That being said, I feel your pain because, despite being a white female, my first 6 years I grew up surrounded by Cree people (literally they were 3/4 of my neighbors and my parents’ families were 3 hours away) and my kindergarden and playschool was run by the local band and grade 1 was a 50/50 split when it came to students and public school educators had started to realize that it was culturally insensitive to demand eye contact of children when the elders didn’t do it. I was never taught to make eye contact because it was considered rude by them. Since then, it has been a struggle to make eye contact with anyone (and not because I am shy) and I am the only one in my family who has this issue (brother was 4 when we left).

    I bring this up because I have seen this type of question devolve into saying how eye contact is how you show confidence without recognizing that different cultures have different body language expectations and eye contact is one of them. But, when you are in a culture that expects it, then you learn to adapt if you want to be accepted.

    1. QualityControlFreak*

      I was lucky; my parents were educators and my American Indian father told me before I ever started school that eye contact was part of the dominant culture and I would need to learn how to do it. He explained that to us, it may feel impolite, but that to most people not making eye contact makes it appear you have something to hide (the old “shifty eyes” thing). So I did. Still feels mildly rude to me, but I’ve learned to deal.

    2. Cleopatra Jones*

      I agree.
      As an African American woman (who’s one generation removed from legal segregation in the U.S.).

      This was a really hard thing for me to learn as a professional adult. All of my older relatives (including my parents) were raised to not look white people in the eye because it was considered an act of aggression; and could definitely land you in serious trouble.

      So now when I have to maintain eye contact, I try to go for direct eye contact but I will shift my gaze among everyone in the group. If I’m talking to a single person then I try to look at various places on their face so it doesn’t feel so uncomfortable or weird to me.

      1. Rutendo*

        As an African woman, raised in the US, UK, Switzerland, Belgium and France. I have become adept at shifting between social protocol that calls for eye contact (Western culture) and not maintaining eye contact with your elders or superiors as it is a sign of disrespect in my culture. My parents taught me to observe both especially at home (it would get confusing though when I was young and in trouble and my mom would yell “what you looking at me for?” and then when I dropped my eyes a minute later yell again, “See you aren’t even listening to me, look at me when I am talking to you?”. Hahahhaha I cannot even begin to tell you the problems with raising a child in so many diverse cultures, I was constantly confused growing up. (It doesn’t help that my parents are from different tribes themselves, don’t speak each other’s languages but expected me to know everything about both their cultures and languages as well as that of our host country-so much fun).

  10. Jamie =^_^= (in lieu of avatar)*

    I am totally on board with this being a societal standard, but I’ve always been curious as to what the eye contact people get out of it – I imagine it makes them comfortable, and not having it makes them uncomfortable the same way a lot of eye contact makes some others (myself included) uncomfortable.

    For me longish eye contact feels intimate for lack of a better word. Not sexual or romantic, more a personal space issue. I have the same kind of slightly uncomfortable feeling with this as when in a crowded elevator and people are in my personal space bubble. It’s not creepy or like they are wrong – it just feels – too close. Words are failing me, but I find it an interesting phenomenon.

    And I’ll throw this out there – do some of you do it because eye contact elicits comments about your eyes from other people and that makes you uncomfortable? I didn’t like as a kid being told how pretty my eyes were by strangers all the time, and as they are a somewhat distinctive I still get this more often than I’d like as an adult. People comment on them – they comment on my kids, oh I’d know they were yours anywhere with those eyes…and it’s just a weird talking point. Several times in my career I’ve had men say something to the effect that they aren’t hitting on me, and they know it’s weird, and then tell me I have beautiful eyes. Then I make my awkward face and we go back to work talk. Don’t get me wrong – not like it happens daily, but in every workplace more than once.

    And my daughters gets it several times a day as she works with customers and it’s a running topic. Apparently you can’t take your change for your burger without complimenting the server.

    And that’s not a brag – most people have beautiful eyes and even unattractive people have a best feature – but it’s weird that it’s inappropriate for people to say you’re pretty or beautiful or whatever without a qualifier, but telling someone they have beautiful eyes, or a pretty smile, or great hair is totally okay. Although men never comment on hair, always women. Odd – like it’s socially acceptable to be attractive in pieces.

    1. CN*

      Actually, I came here to ask the opposite question.

      For me, eye contact gives me valuable information. When I’m conversing with someone, their facial expression is a big source of info too and helps me understand better what they’re communicating. And as we all know, eyes are a HUGE part of facial expressions.

      So my question is, everyone who DOESNT make eye contact – what do you look at instead? Doesn’t it feel strange to have no idea what the person’s face looks like as they’re saying something potentially important? Or rather – doesn’t it feel strange to ONLY have their words and tone of voice to go off of when you interact with them?

      I think the confidence aspect is culturally relative, but I would think facial expression is an important source of information for most humans in general no?

      1. Cog*

        “I would think facial expression is an important source of information for most humans in general no?”

        I can’t really contest your statement since you qualified it with “most humans in general”, but for me at least, facial expressions are like some weird kind of puzzle game (and not the fun kind). A smile: is it the “I like you” smile or the “Screw you and also your mother and your parrot” smile? Eye-crinkling: are they thinking? Squinting at the sun? Angry at me?

        I have a mental lookup table of probable meanings for most of the weird things people’s faces do, but finding things in it isn’t instantaneous and by the time I’ve figured it out, there’s usually a new confusing thing going on with someone’s face. Looking at them really doesn’t help.

        1. Nashira*

          I hear you on the not-fun puzzle. I can understand, kinda, facial expressions on people I care for. Sometimes. The rest of the time, and with anyone else, I end up spending twenty minutes thinking through a five minute interaction. Otherwise I don’t know what the other person meant and what their face meant, and that’s really anxiety-producing! More anxiety is usually the last thing I need.

      2. College+Career+Counselor*

        I coach students in networking and interview behavior in the U.S. Some of the students who had difficulty with eye contact gave the following responses when I brought it up to them (paraphrased):
        a) I’m nervous
        b) I wasn’t aware I wasn’t looking at you when I was talking to you
        c) When I’m constructing or delivering my response, I find it distracting to look at someone’s eyes and I lose my place/don’t remember what to say next

        I think some of this is completely situational. The interview is a BIG DEAL, and the interviewer is hanging on your every word (and probably looking at you fairly intently). It’s not a normal conversation, in other words. I attempt to coach the person to have as normal a conversation as possible under the circumstances (as that may help alleviate some anxiety about the interview) and to try to reduce (not eliminate) certain behaviors, as that may help them be more effective in self-presentation. In most situations, people can get more adept at the behavior, even if it never feels comfortable.

        The other side of the eye contact coin is too MUCH eye contact. An unblinking stare can be unnerving to an interviewer…

      3. Lana*

        For me, whether I can make eye contact is highly variable. Generally, I find it easier to do if I am listening than if I am speaking. When I am listening, even at my best I can’t do it totally, but I think I manage something close to what people expect, and I can look at their face or check in with it enough to where I feel like I’m getting everything I need. On the other hand, if I am being given instructions or detailed information that I need to follow closely, or there is too much other input for me to sort through (and my threshhold for that can be quite low), I need to block out as much as I can in order to focus. I can usually mask this by writing things down if that’s appropriate in the situation, by turning my “good ear” (neither ear is better) if I don’t have time for an explanation, or by explaining that I have some auditory processing problems if I have time for it, which is true and doesn’t necessitate an explanation of autism, which is still VERY misunderstood and stigmatized.

        This is the way it’s always been for me, so no, it doesn’t feel strange. It’s not like I have any other firsthand experience to compare it to. I suppose I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to get through life pretty successfully this way, but like I say in a comment a little further down, I’ve incorporated a lot of ways to avoid eye/face contact into my normal conversational style, and as far as I can tell, it reads as more or less normal. It sounds like I get a lot less information from a person’s face than you do, even when I am looking right at them, so I don’t really feel like I’m missing anything.

        1. KH*

          Me too! I have no problem most of the time making eye contact when the other person is speaking, but I can’t speak with making eye contact! Making my eyes go up or down helps me to form what I am trying to say. (Studies have shown that your eyes go toward the part of your brain from wherein the memory is being recalled.)
          I like the “Look at another part of the person’s face” suggestion. Any suggestions for how to overcome this? I need to pass a job interview!!

      4. Helka*

        I think you’re approaching that from a lot more of an absolutist perspective than it really is. I’m terrible with eye contact — my natural inclination is to not look at the person at all, even close to them — but I still take quick glances at their expression to gauge exactly the things you’re talking about. But that’s like the kind of glancing you do when you’re driving — very quick, not even a full second of looking at a time. And I’m an extreme example in that otherwise I’m feeling the urge to look off at a 20 or 30 degree angle from the person I’m talking to.

        So when someone’s saying they don’t make eye contact, that doesn’t mean they’re not looking at the person at all and have zero information about what their face is doing. It just means that they’re not sustaining anything long enough to actually have meaningful eye contact.

      5. Jamie*

        To me lack of eye contact means we’re not looking directly into each other’s eyes – not that I can’t see them at all. I see all their facial expressions and notice when they start fidgeting or picking at stuff…I see smiles and raised eyebrows…all of which I’d miss if I were looking directly into their eyes.

        1. Cat*

          I commented below on this – I actually don’t think that’s what most people mean by eye contact in a social or professional setting (and I understand that professionals diagnosing autism-spectrum disorders will look at whether someone is making too much and inappropriate eye contact of the type you describe in addition to whether they make no eye contact).

      6. Eliza Jane*

        Weird eye contact thing: I can do eye contact easily with strangers, such as people who interview me, but the more I know someone, the less I can do it. For me, it’s a weird psychological hangup — they say the eyes are the window to the soul, and I generally feel that if I look in someone’s eyes too long, they’ll see all the insecurities and ugliness at the core of me.

        Fun, huh?

        But I still look at people’s faces! My eyes will flick back to take in expressions, and peripheral vision gives you a lot. I am even looking at eyes a significant portion of the time. I just don’t do that eye-to-eye lock that a lot of people seem to, and when I do, it gets more uncomfortable and tense for every second it lasts, so I have to look away.

      7. Liz*

        I don’t look at anything; I’m trying to concentrate on what you’re saying. But I have visual issues, so that’s why: Looking at things takes work for me. Imagine being asked to consciously smell something whenever someone was talking to you. It’s difficult for me to do both at once.

      8. mamram*

        While I don’t think I’m unusually uncomfortable with a lot of eye contact, in the contexts that I am, I think it actually has a lot to do with exactly that. I feel like strong eye contact communicates that you’re actively seeking as much information as possible, which is a good thing usually. But sometimes it can come off like someone’s trying to invasively read my emotional state? I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but to me sometimes people who make a LOT of eye contact (I don’t even mean staring) during social interactions seem like they’re either hyper-vigilant for some reason, or maybe aren’t big on boundaries or privacy. I acknowledge though that this is just my personal (and maybe unfair) bias though.

      9. mirror*

        When I really need to concentrate on what someone’s saying, I almost always look away. I’m not looking at anything specifically, but it helps me “soak in” their words. I feel that when I’m looking at someone, all I can think about is keeping eye contact, but it takes so much mental energy to look at them that I then stop paying as close attention to their words. I’m just thinking in my head “give good eye contact, give good eye contact, smile a bit, give good eye contact….”

        Same reason for when I need to say something complicated and important. I stare off into the middle distance as my thoughts roll out into words.

      10. Great Question*

        This is a great question!

        I am uncomfortable with eye contact, but have trained myself to do it when I know it’s necessary (e.g., job interviews). The rest of the time, I tend to look at people’s mouths. I don’t pay much attention to facial expression or eyes as a source of info. Probably related: I also often don’t see or recognize people out of context (e.g., a co-worker in the lobby of a movie theater). IOW, in answer to your question, “Doesn’t it feel strange to ONLY have their words and tone of voice to go off of when you interact with them?” no, because I don’t miss something I never had.

        Despite that, I’m only mildly socially awkward. Aspergers runs in my family, and although I don’t have it, I can relate to some of the issues Aspergians deal with.

      11. Finny*

        I am legally blind as well as faceblind, and also on the autism spectrum. For me words make sense, when I can decipher them (I also have severe auditory processing issues), eye contact is painful and constricting (more so with people I know than with strangers), and faces simply don’t register.

      12. Beth*

        I don’t receive information from facial expressions in the way you describe, so it’s only a distraction from the information that I AM receiving when someone is talking. It’s fascinating to hear from the other side of the coin, though!

      13. Better not say*

        I find I get much more information by analyzing word choice and breathing rates. ( I learned how to do this from a blind friend of my father’s. Interestingly, the blind aren’t usually considered socially impaired, which they would be if eye contact worked the way some people claim it does, but the deaf are easily mistaken for autistic by some tests) I can’t read facial expressions at all anyway, and most people who are being deceptive know to change their expression, but not their breathing rate. This is how I get a reputation for sometimes being almost psychic even though I look like I’m not paying attention. Moreover, I can really only use one sense effectively at a time and if I am looking at the person, I will simply not hear or remember anything they said.

        Quite frankly, even with major effort to control my body language, I was only able to get a job because I found a place that was specifically enrolled in a state program to hire the disabled ( not a sheltered workshop, they mostly hire the non-disabled, just that their hiring managers go through a training on “how ADA can work for you” and disclosed my autism in the pre-interview section where they ask about ADA accommodations needed. Unfortunately the job itself is a terrible fit( even though nominally in the field I want and the managers seem to be mostly nice people) no sane person would hire an Aspie ( and I probably border on being the next category down) to do even though they say I do very well and they love my work ( about 80% customer service, I have literally ended up using my lunch break to look up suicide prevention resources because that’s how it makes me feel with people screaming obscenities in my ear on the phone regularly), but I am trapped here because disability benefits are structured with the assumption that you have family who are willing and able to help look after you which is obviously unrealistic for most people and why a large percentage of women in my support groups have ended up involved in prostitution to survive.

        I am considering using the ADA accommodation links ( the ones that say “if you need ADA accomodations for this interview, email here ahead of time”) that are in most applications to see if it works a second time, but have been told those are mostly a trap to get rid of disabled people quickly.

        Ironically my field is one where my “disability” *should* be a strength ( because people’s lives could be and often are lost or permanently affected by inaccuracy in this case, you really DO want an obsessive detail-focused pedant) but people are so mired in one-size-fits-all modes of doing things.

        I wonder if it would help to somehow bring up the stats on how many people we kill in our line of work through carelessness ( a lot) and how I want to help by being better than that, or if that would be deemed too negative.

        Anyway, I do know that much of this rant was not very professional-sounding and not stuff I can bring up openly in the workplace, but it has been building a long time.

    2. Adam*

      I’ve often wondered if this might be yet another facet of the introvert vs. extrovert dynamic. Most people here will know that extroverts gain energy from social interactions. With introverts while you can be just as social and fun as the next person, for you you’re spending energy to do so and WILL need your eventual quiet time to recharge and avoid devolving into a grumpy Gus.

      I’ve never read about those differences in this context but I would be willing to bet that eye contact is much the same way for people based on which end of the spectrum you’re on.

      1. CN*

        Well, anecdotally, I’m pretty heavily introverted, and I value eye contact a lot. In fact, it has almost nothing to do with “comfort” per se, but everything to do with understanding and communication.

        For better or worse, there’s heaps of literature all talking about the different ways different types of body language communicate different things. So I think the one thing that is pretty universal is that body language DOES matter. And in North American culture at least (can’t speak for others), a lot of time goes into facial expression too.

        1. Adam*

          For sure. It was just a theory. Many people find eye contact intense as the eyes are arguably the most communicative features on a person, which is why many would rather look at anything else but them.

          1. Anonsie*

            I agree. Piping in on that anec-data, though, I’m very extroverted and love talking to people and I still feel weird just starring right in someone’s eyes for more than a moment. It’s too focused, I can’t see the rest of them (like Jamie said above) and it makes me feel self-conscious. I look all around the room during conversations, unless I’m specifically making a point to make lots of eye contact.

      2. JamieG*

        That actually makes sense to me. I’m an introvert, and I work in a very heavily customer service-oriented position. I’ve found that my stamina for social interaction increases the more I do it (when I switched positions for a while to something more solitary, it was great! But when I went back, just a few hours were exhausting, when they hadn’t been before), but on some days it’s still a struggle to People for eight hours – because I’m sick, or didn’t get enough recharge time, or it’s just busier than usual. When I’m running low on extrovert points, one of the things that helps me conserve them is not making eye contact. Eye contact doesn’t take a lot of energy for me on an individual basis, but multiplied by 100+ people a day, it’s a pretty easy way of saving the energy so I can still function, and not have to hide in a dark, quiet corner*. I can easily see that someone with fewer extrovert points to work with, or for whom eye contact takes up more of them, it being totally exhausting even in the short- term.

        (*The only time I’ve ever actually done that was Black Friday, when I was working in the toy department and up way later than I had been in months.)

    3. My two cents...*

      When people make eye contact with me while I’m speaking, it lets me know they’re engaged and actively listening while offering a chance to check for any unexpected emotions on their faces (boredom, confusion, irritation, etc).

      It does run the risk of possibly sending a memo of flirtation, which seems especially true when I’m staffing a booth at a tradeshow. Seems some people just don’t know what to do with themselves when a stranger is pleasant and attentive, especially in the engineering world.

    4. Cat*

      I actually think sustained eye contact reads as intimate and/or romantic to most people most of the time. What’s expected in a business or normal social setting is less than that, which is part of why the looking-at-another-part-of-the-face trick works just fine most of the time. Instead, you want to be looking at people enough-and making enough fleeting eye contact-that they (a) can monitor your reactions and react accordingly (which is just part of the normal give and take of conversation; people depend heavily on facial signs and body language to gauge what they say and do next); and (b) it’s clear you’re paying attention.

    5. straws*

      I have difficulty with eye contact due to an eye disorder. If I force my eyes to focus too long, I start seeing double. So I end up with really shifty eyes when I’m in a conversation with one other person. My solution so far has been to shift between looking at one eye and then the other. It’s just enough movement to not trigger double vision, but not enough to be noticeably shifty. That or everyone is just making fun of me behind my back! :)

      I also could never see those Magic Eye pictures because my eyes aren’t capable of focusing for long enough. I personally feel like that was a bigger loss than looking all shifty eyed.

      1. Jamie*

        I don’t have an eye disorder aside from astigmatism – but I’ve never been able to see one of those Magic Eye things ever. My kids had tons of those books and if they didn’t all see them I would swear there was nothing there and it was all a scam. Not one time could I see anything in those pictures.

        At least I’m not alone.

        1. Felicia*

          I can’t see those pictures either and I’m just nearsighted. I also can’t see the 3D in 3D movies which is apparently not uncommon.

        2. Anonsie*

          You have to UN-focus your eyes a little for them to work, like if you were just zoning out and starring without looking. If you’re actually looking at it, you’re not gonna see it.

          I have a weird talent for being able to do the magic eye pictures really fast. I like getting the books and flipping through them with people just to freak them out with this– I’ll name what’s in the picture and turn the page almost immediately before they can see anything. “COW.” *flip* “RACE CAR” *flip* “TREES” *flip* “CAKE.” *flip*

          1. straws*

            Interesting- maybe it’s just my nearsightedness, like Felicia, and not the focus problem. I’m fantastic at the zoning out part though!

            1. Sue Wilson*

              It’s probably not nearsightedness. I’m nearsighted, and I can do it as quickly as Anonsie. All you have to do is relax you eyes, literally let your eye muscles go soft.

      2. Liz*

        Double vision and headaches yay! And for me, conversation length is usually just an awful focus length; is that true for you too?

        1. straws*

          If I actually have to focus for that long, definitely. The hardest part is remembering to “look normal” for the entirety of the conversation. Then, if I do it wrong, it’s headaches & disorientation galore! I’m fine turning my focus toward books & computers though, because they don’t care how much my eyes bounce around to adjust :)

          1. Liz*

            Haha yes!

            ‘Look at screen, look at wall, look at window, look at screen…’

            Or if listening to something, give up focusing altogether.

            1. straws*

              It’s funny how you can feel like you’re the only one with an issue, and then you get on the internet and – nope! Plenty of other people to keep you company!

  11. Cog*

    Oh gosh, OP, I am right there with you. I’m Autistic, although I generally don’t disclose that in interviews, and making eye contact feels about as intimate and inappropriate as walking up and licking someone’s face.

    I usually alternate between bridge of the nose/eyebrows (when I feel like I need to explicitly be seen to be looking at someone’s face) and the top of one ear (when I can’t stand it any more or need to be able to think harder about what I’m saying). It’s a work in progress, though — my instinct is to watch people’s mouths because it helps me process what they’re saying, but this can come across as sexual interest (which, just, yikes).

    1. the gold digger*

      licking someone’s face

      And yet my cousin did that to my then-boyfriend, now husband and also to my sister’s then-boyfriend at a family reunion several years ago, which is why I now make no effort to stay in touch with that cousin. (Fortunately, I have 25 other cousins, so I have options.)

      (I was visiting my aunt – the cousin’s mother – last year and she asked if she should call Licking Lucy to come over. I said no and explained why. My aunt sighed and asked if alcohol had been involved and I said yes, I believe so.)

    2. Chinook*

      “I’m Autistic, although I generally don’t disclose that in interviews, and making eye contact feels about as intimate and inappropriate as walking up and licking someone’s face. ”

      I don’t think I am autistic but I too feel that it is intimate to look into someone’s eyes. To me, I think it might actually be a “window to the soul” thing where I feel like I am looking behind your public mask and seeing the real person (and vice versa). It would be like seeing the person naked.

    3. Nashira*

      I might be autistic (I’m debating looking into an adult diagnosis) and have major trouble making eye contact. It’s so intimate and, in some ways, can feel violating. Your face-licking example is a perfect way to express the discomfort! Especially when you add in my major aversion to being touched or having to touch almost all people…

      1. Cog*

        The process for adult diagnosis was exhausting (I’m not sure it’s standardized; mine was a battery consisting of the WAIS IV [IQ test], WMS IV [the associated memory specialized test], at least two personality inventories, and several hours of interviews), but I’m not sorry I did it. The result was basically not in doubt by the time I was sent for evaluation, but in most circumstances I can pass for NT well enough that people don’t believe me if I disclose, so having it down on paper can be handy.

        That said, if it hadn’t been covered by insurance, the diagnostic process would have been pretty expensive, and if I hadn’t been a grad student with flexible lab hours, it would have been hard to get enough time off to do it. Just in case that helps you decide whether to pursue it.

  12. AndersonDarling*

    This reminded me of a lady I met when I was working at a spa. She asked me if she had a mustache. She didn’t, but she said someone once said that she had a mustache and she has worried about it ever since. She had gone to many estheticians, waxers, and beauticians asking if she had a mustache, and they all said she didn’t. But she was still worried.
    I was reminded of this because I hope the fear of the eye contact issue isn’t making the interviews more intense. I would hate for the interviewer to ask a question, and you miss it because you are wondering if you are making enough eye contact.
    I don’t know if others agree, but I would come right out and say something before the interview starts. “I’m very happy to be speaking with you today. I’m afraid I’m not the best at making eye contact when I am nervous. I hope that won’t change your opinion of me and my work.” It would at least ease the tension.

    1. Eye Feel You (⊙_⊙')*

      I’ve been told by people in the hiring business that it’s better to just not mention any mental hangups you may have because interviewers can sometimes mentally fixate on the words “anxiety” or “nervous” or whatever to the detriment of whatever else you say. You may be a fantastic candidate with everything they’re looking for, but in the end, they’ll remember you saying you have anxiety and it might make them think twice about how well you fit with the team or whether you’re up for the challenges your role might face. Just don’t draw attention to it at all if at all possible. But that’s just what I’ve been told.

      1. fposte*

        I’m inclined to agree. If there’s an ADA-level disability that could cause your behavior to be misread, that’s another matter, but in this case it would be an applicant saying that they can’t meet professional norms when nervous, which would not be information that is beneficial to them.

      2. olives*

        Yep – an interviewer can tell when you’re nervous, most of the time. What’s nice to see, though, is if you can handle it anyway, and still operate and give sensible answers to the questions asked. Don’t get so bogged down in the fact that you’re nervous that it becomes more important than the other things you want to convey in such a limited time period!

        Basically, if you bring it up, you’re somewhat asking it to be the subject of conversation, or alternately for the interviewer to give you an extra boost on your performance.

        Everyone has nerves, it’s important to be able to function alongside them.

  13. Lana*

    Like a couple other posters here, I’m autistic, so I can sympathize with this! For me, I’ve sort of incorporated a lot of expressions and other things into my normal conversational habits and non-verbal communication that involve looking away from a person’s eyes/face for what, as far as I know, appear to be completely normal reasons. I don’t know if that’s something you can incorporate into your own style, but if you can, that might help. Other than that, I agree with looking near a person’s eyes, even though for me, at the times when I really can’t make eye contact, it’s more that I can’t look at their whole face (way too much input!). In those cases I’m usually able to explain it away by saying that I need to close my eyes or give them my good ear or something in order to concentrate on and follow what they’re saying. Unfortunately my onstage trick of looking just past a person doesn’t really work face-to-face.

  14. MK*

    OP, are you sure the only reason you didn’t get the job was lack of eye contact? It sounds incredible that the otherwise best candidate would be rejected for such a reason. Maybe it was the whole image you project in these interviews.

  15. Pontoon Pirate*

    I feel for you! I am tremendously bad at maintaining eye contact. I actually prefer panel interviews because it gives me an excuse to “jump” around a bit. I agree with the suggestions to look at another part of the face. Three other things have helped me:

    I make sure the rest of my body language is as open and approachable as possible–no slumping, crossed arms, playing with my hands. I am upright, leaning just slightly forward–as long as the person across from me isn’t slumped back; then it looks aggressive.

    I use confident language to subtly re-assert my competence and confidence. “That’s a great question. Here’s how I would approach that as a Lead Teapot Analyst….” “I’m glad you asked that [behavioral question]. In a prior role, I blah blah blah.”

    I also try to think beforehand of what successful eye contact looks like, and imagine I am “acting” like a person who can do it. In a sense, I’m trying to give myself a bit of an out-of-body experience, where I can “see” myself making eye contact. If I think about what it looks like, I find I can actually accomplish it for the most part. I know that sounds a bit zany and confusing, but I guess it’s an element of “fake it ’til you fake it.”

  16. Joey*

    Ugh, and I have a thing about locking eyes on a fixed point. If someone locks their eyes on me it tends to feel forced and stiff. It’s even worse in panel interviews where staring in one direction can come off as offensive. Its always really obvious when people can’t keep eye contact with multiple audience members.

  17. What the*

    OP, I’m sorry that it is hard for you. I have to say, if someone wasn’t making eye contact with me in an interview it would bother me. I would be able to look past that for a job that required minimal contact with peers, but for any collaborative role it would be difficult for me. Right or wrong, eye contact is a sign that the person is engaged in the conversation. If you weren’t looking me in the eye, I would assume you were lying or uncomfortable.

    I’m saying this as someone who often participates in the interview process. My role requires a lot of cross-departmental relationships and if I didn’t feel the connection it would be challenging for me to rate you as a good fit with the culture.

    1. Cog*

      I have to say, if someone wasn’t making eye contact with me in an interview it would bother me. … If you weren’t looking me in the eye, I would assume you were lying or uncomfortable.

      If nothing else, I hope this thread points up the fact that this isn’t necessarily the case. For instance, I spent 5 years at a job where I had a collegial, warm, productive relationship with most of the people in a 100-person research facility, even though eye contact is a constant issue for me. Obviously you’re in line with the cultural norms here, and that’s understandable and fine, but as someone who’s neuroatypical-forced-to-pass-for-neurotypical it can often feel like I’m meeting everyone else way more than halfway, and it would be great if there could be a bit of a cultural shift toward not stigmatizing this.

      1. Lana*

        “as someone who’s neuroatypical-forced-to-pass-for-neurotypical it can often feel like I’m meeting everyone else way more than halfway, and it would be great if there could be a bit of a cultural shift toward not stigmatizing this.”

        YES, thank you! I understanding staying with the “no eye contact = no engagement” idea absent any other information, but I think there’s a whole lot of information to go against that in this thread.

      2. Liz*

        I feel like that a lot. I’m neurotypical, but I feel you on the ‘passing’.

        For example, makeup at work/in interviews. I have dark circles under my eyes, so people can tell I don’t wear makeup. For interviews, the decisions I have to make are:

        – I have to have someone shop with me to help pick out a concealer color. My color perception is ever so slightly off/different in each eye, and while normally it isn’t a problem, makeup relies on delicate shading/undertones to look right.
        – Apply it without getting it in my eye/on my contacts (which I wear to interviews instead of glasses to look normal because my prescription distorts my eye size) without any depth perception.
        – If it does get in, it’ll have the possibility of ruining a 150 dollar contact that will take 3-4 weeks to replace or causing an eye infection that can turn into an ulcer because one of my eyes has no pain receptors. Which would mean an eye doc visit (once I finally notice my eye has a problem which is usually when my cornea starts getting scratched/pitted and can cause permanent sight loss) and weeks of expensive antibiotic eye drops.

        But I still end up doing it a lot of the time for important things, because you have to look ‘professional’ and ‘normal’. All those little decisions that pile up to cause stress because you can’t talk about why you don’t do normal things because they’re unspoken agreements and talking about them is gauche and TMI.

        Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

    2. Windchime*

      And I’ve been in interviews where the candidate had plenty of charm but did not have the experience that his resume indicated. He tried to BS (lie) his way through the interview, all while making great eye contact.

      I give people a lot of leeway in interviews for being nervous. If their voice is unsteady at first or they seem shaky or don’t have great eye contact at first, I can overlook that because of nerves. If the shakes and unsteady voice go away but the eye contact is still difficult, I wouldn’t think they were necessarily lying. Would I think that they might not have good social skills? Perhaps.

  18. Eye Feel You (⊙_⊙')*

    Are you me? Not too long ago I got the same feedback, and it was strange to me because I had felt I was staring down the interviewers. I guess it turned out that when it was my turn to speak, I looked around the room as some people do because I was thinking on the spot, and not that I lacked eye contact throughout the entire interview. And I know this because the interviewer was meeting my gaze the entire time she was speaking, how could she not see?

    Like you, I’ve never gotten that kind of feedback from anyone before throughout my lifetime, so it was a huge surprise to hear it now. I don’t think you did anything wrong, but I guess it’s just one of those things the both of us will have to make more of a conscious effort to make sure we’re doing. I would rather appear over-confident because of my powerful eye contact than anxious and submissive.

  19. mel*

    Less eye contact = nervousness/discomfort. Well, okay that makes sense.
    But her friends claim that nervousness alone is responsible for her not getting a job.
    Everyone’s okay with this assessment? Isn’t everyone nervous/uncomfortable in interviews?

    1. Kai*

      Yeah, that part seemed weird to me too.

      Not that I have a ton of experience with it, but I highly doubt I’d discount an otherwise really strong candidate solely because of lack of eye contact. Or if I did, it would be part of a larger assessment: the person seems to lack confidence, or just gave off an awkward vibe. I simply can’t imagine saying “nah, this one was okay, but he didn’t look into my eyes enough.”

      1. SallyForth*

        I think it’s because if you aren’t looking at someone’s face, it is more than just eye contact. You aren’t reacting to their non-verbal cues.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I doubt it was as simple as “she didn’t make much eye contact so we’re not hiring her.” It’s usually more like “she didn’t make much eye contact … she didn’t seem quite comfortable … Candidate B seemed really comfortable with all of us and was similarly (or better) qualified.”

      1. Beebs*

        I’ve interviewed hundreds of people and only a few times was I aware of someone’s unusual eye contact issues. One that I remember involved a person who looked at us while we were asking questions, but then stared at the ceiling the whole time she was talking . . . for minutes at a time without a break. I’m a ceiling-starer when I think, too, so I get it–but this was distracting. It got to the point where I was having a hard time concentrating on her words because I was wondering if she would ever stop looking up. (And that’s not why she didn’t get the job, and she was hired somewhere else shortly after, so I know it didn’t ruin her career or anything.) I wonder if the issue with OP isn’t so much how much eye contact per se, but rather that the overall impression of eye contact was distracting–if that makes sense.

        1. KH*

          Thank you for this comment. Most of us are probably overanalyzing. I’ll be mindful of eye contact but not to the point that it paralyzes me.

    3. LAI*

      I don’t think everyone is VISIBLY nervous/uncomfortable in interviews. I’ve certainly conducted lots of interviews with people who seemed very comfortable – I’m sure they were nervous but there were no outward signs of it. And there are also different kinds of nervous. For example, I once interviewed a young man for an entry level position who was clearly very nervous, but it came across as just a little inexperience combined with enthusiasm and really wanting the job. We hired him (and he did turn out to be the kind of person who was really hard-working but slightly overanxious about most things). On the other hand, we also interviewed a woman once who arrived visibly sweating, her hands were trembling slightly and she kept bouncing her legs throughout the interview – I don’t think her answers were great either but it didn’t matter because the overall impression was that she wouldn’t be competent or stand up under stress.

    4. L McD*

      I think this is one of those things where you’re expected to be nervous, but you’re also expected to be able to manage your nervousness. A lot of jobs might include important tasks that would make any reasonable person nervous (such as making a crucial presentation to clients, or whatever else you might imagine) so they want to see you can maintain a certain level of composure no matter what you’re feeling inside.

  20. BeBe*

    I’ve had (and still have) this problem too. In my case it’s because of the combination of being shy, and growing up being dismissed because I was a girl (not in a mean way, but still) so I don’t make much eye contact OR worse I overcompensate to be “heard.” I was first told about it by my supervisor when I was much younger and starting to move up in my career. I still have to work really, really hard at it though. It helps that now I am nearsighted, so without my glasses the faces of people across the table are blurry, which makes this much easier! LOL!

    I don’t think I’ve ever lost out on a job due poor eye-contact though, so I’m not sure exactly what I do in interviews to get through this. I know I “force” myself to glance around at each face (or forehead) and pause there for a sentence or two. I’m not sure any of this helps much, because all you can really do is practice, practice, practice those interview skills. Sometimes I also lightly joke when I begin an interview (during the banter stage) that I’m a little bit nervous (who isn’t?) but really happy to be there, excited for the opportunity to interview, learn about the position, etc., etc.

  21. The Other Dawn*

    OP, when you’re not making eye contact, where are you looking? I ask because my mother in law constantly looks at my chest while she’s talking to me. She’ll make brief eye contact, but then the eyes go right back to my chest. Creeps me out sometimes even though I know that’s the way she is. Maybe you’re looking somewhere other than the facial region and that’s why it’s an issue?

    1. De Minimis*

      Or maybe looking elsewhere in the room, or at the floor….I have a real problem with eye contact if I am not careful and I tend to look everywhere but at the person I’m speaking with. Just something I have be constantly aware of–I’d say that is the best solution here, just tell yourself you will make a couple of seconds of eye contact every so often [like maybe when you’re answering a question.]

      This is definitely something you can develop.

  22. TotesMaGoats*

    Since fairly consistent eye contact is a thing and you’ve been told this is an issue, then you know what you need to work on. I’ve got nothing to add to that.

    I will share two stories.
    1. In the past year, I hired a new staff member who has some sort of disability regarding his eye sight. I didn’t ask what kind but it’s pretty clear between his glasses and other things that he doesn’t have standard (even corrected) eyesight. It can seem like he’s not looking at you when talking, like his eyes can’t focus on you. He interviewed so well that I don’t take notice of this anymore.

    2. I used to work with a woman who always looked like her eyes were just barely open. It was the strangest thing. She could be talking in a meeting, clearly awake, but it looked like her eyes were half open. I always felt like she wasn’t engaged in the meetings.


    1. Jamie*

      I knew someone like this in high-school. Everyone’s parents always thought she was stoned because her eyes always looked half closed, but they were always like that.

      1. Joey*

        I wonder what her eyes would do if she really got stoned? Stay the same? Completely close? Hmm, I wonder if she has trouble with cops not believing her?

  23. Kuerbis*

    I blew an interview at the final stage at a very top law school with an Ivy league educated dean who I found so heartwarming and friendly yet very intimidating at the same time. I kept telling myself repeatedly to look at her eyes and I think my eyes probably bugged out and freaked her out. I also checked the time by looking at the clock behind her and she took notice of that as well and told me not to worry about the time (I was afraid of passing the 30 minutes allotted for the interview). At the very end of the interview she saw me out to the lobby and gave me her card but when we went to shake hands I couldn’t bring myself to look her in the eye and I just stared at our hands shaking. I am so embarrassed by that interview and by the opportunity I might have let slip away… I still cringe thinking of it.

    In contrast, I had an interview yesterday that went exceedingly well and I was offered the job on the spot. The man who interviewed me had the most wonderful eye smile so I focused on the way his eyes creased as he smiled instead of staring right into his eyes and that really helped. It felt more natural and put me at ease, which in turn helped me feel more comfortable and confident.

    1. Joey*

      I am positive I blew an interview bc of eye contact when I was younger. I interviewed at a Ritz Carlton with a hiring manager that had a top on that was pretty low cut. So I made a concerted effort to stare at her face and not ever look anywhere below her chin. Well, I got tunnel vision and it weirded me out. So I looked down at her desk and shook my head a bit while she was asking me a question. To this day I am positive I didn’t get that job because she thought I was checking out her boobs.

  24. Andrea*

    I used to interview people (not to hire them) for a former job and I struggle with eye contact but in the other direction – I make too much eye contact which can be difficult for people talking about difficult things. I found that when I focussed on my other body language it really really helped change the tone of the interview and the participant was much more comfortable. I did things like make sure that I had an open and relaxed posture, that I breathed calmly, maintained a friendly vocal tone, used warm and open hand gestures, and when I needed to pause and think for a moment I made sure to make eye contact for a moment first to acknowledge the question using my body langauge and then looked to the side for a moment to do my thinking (in case away for my thinking made me look intense or frustrated which is my thinking face). I also made sure that when the other person was talking that I tried to mirror thier body langauge in a way to reinforce our rapport – so a friendly expression while nodding a little when needed etc. Maybe thinking about the whole body in addition to the eyes will help?

  25. A Minion*

    Ugh. I can completely identify. Throughout my whole life I’ve been chastised for not smiling enough, not being friendly, etc… I’ve had friends who, after they’ve gotten to know me, tell me that they disliked me when they met me because they thought I was stand-offish or stuck up (as we say in the south!). I also have trouble meeting people’s eyes for any length of time. And almost everyone says that I’m very quiet and hard to get to know…but the thing is, I love being the center of attention. I love making people laugh, I’m known in the office as the person who’s always cheerful, always making jokes, always willing to jump in and help, etc. It just takes me getting very comfortable with someone to open up and be who I am with them.
    So, my inability to connect with people immediately makes it very difficult for me to feel comfortable and that creates a whole other kind of anxiety when I go on interviews because I’m excruciatingly aware of how people perceive me in the beginning, so I go out of my way to smile, laugh, try to appear relaxed, etc. In an interview, my natural wit deserts me, I trip over my words, I make jokes inappropriately (not inappropriate jokes, mind you – no “a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar” type deals…just when I probably shouldn’t be making a joke. Think Chandler on Friends) I think I either end up looking awkward at best and a little like a lunatic at worst.

  26. SallyForth*

    This is a big topic in the field of autism. Many perfectly capable people with autism lose out on job offers because it is painful to look the interviewer in the eye due to overload.

    Looking slightly beyond the interviewer is a solution, but I second the idea to get a coach. If you aren’t looking up, you are losing valuable feedback from body language, eyes, and expression. People expect you to mirror their own actions somewhat, and not mirroring at all can be read as disinterest or disagreement.

  27. Vicki*

    I’m looking forward to the letter from someone who says they were conducting an interview and “the candidate stared at me the entire time. He never shifted his eyes. It was creepy!”

    1. De Minimis*

      I think that can happen when people are trying to overcompensate…it’s a balance that has to be struck, and it can be hard to figure out when eye contact just doesn’t come naturally to you.

  28. Maureen P.*

    For those people who are trying to find the balance between too little / too much eye contact, try this: make eye contact when the other person is talking, and then let your eyes roam around when you are the one talking. If the other person is talking for a long stretch, then break up the prolonged eye contact by looking down or to the side while nodding in agreement/understanding. This confirms engagement in what the other person is saying – kind of like the way we say “mmm-hmm” to confirm that we’re listening to what someone says, without actually saying anything.

    1. teclatwig*

      This can be a good starting point if you struggle with any eye contact at all. However, talking and talking without ever looking your conversation partner in the eye is a huge problem for several posters here. I have seen it in my daughter, who has sensory integration issues. When she’s being performing in assessments, she rarely makes eye contact (resulting in referral f

    2. teclatwig*

      This can be a good starting point if you struggle with any eye contact at all. However, talking and talking without ever looking your conversation partner in the eye is a huge problem for several posters here. I have seen it in my daughter, who has sensory integration issues. When she’s being performing in assessments, she rarely makes eye contact (resulting in referral for autism testing), but everyone who works for her vehemently disagrees with an autism diagnosis because she is sooo aware of other people and their emotions (and makes great eye contact when listening in a mostly social context). And in fact, I think that hyper awareness is a large part of why she has to look away. She cannot organize her own (possibly unwieldy) thought processes while also processing all of the information coming in through eye contact.

      Personally, I struggle like my daughter, and I also have a very hard time with eye contact when I need to really pay attention to the information coming in. In my late teens I finally learned to do what’s been mentioned here — mouth, eye, other eye (although the shifting around is just because otherwise I hyperfocus and can think about nothing but the body part I am staring at) — but I still suck at remembering to look when I am talking. I am pretty sure this is an ADHD thing, as I have read that this sort of difficulty with eye contact and impulse control is common.

      (I mention all this in case there are people out there thinking “I can’t do eye contact, do I have autism?” Not necessarily, though it’s probably a function of some other known wiring “differences from the expected social norms” that you are probably aware of.)

  29. Just Visiting*

    I’m another one who looks at the mouth instead of the eyes. It’s because I have a (probable) auditory processing disorder and if I can’t look at someone’s mouth, I have a really hard time understanding them. I never thought of it being interpreted as sexual interest, yikes!

    Maybe you’ll luck out and interview with someone who is similarly bad at eye contact. I know that I really never notice if someone is looking into my eyes (because I’m looking at their lips, ha). So a neuroatypical interviewee would have an equal or even better-than-average shot with me.

  30. Mouse*

    You know, while there are definitely cultures where eye contact is not considered a positive (commenters have mentioned some), Japan is not really one of them, or at least not in the way that you’re thinking. There are prescribed circumstances where it’s not appropriate, but there are equally prescribed circumstances where it is required — and if you don’t get those right it stands out more than it does in western culture, at least to my mind. (I don’t get it right — I err on the side of too much, but as a foreigner that’s much more acceptable than too little. In observing though, I can see the correct patterns, which to an extent I can emulate.)

  31. Callie*

    I sympathize. I’m so uncomfortable looking people in the eye, and one of my professors has called me out on it several times in an effort to help me with my interview skills. I just HATE it. But I’m making an active effort to work on it.

  32. BTcounter*

    Not OP but have struggled with the same symptoms, with a slight twist. I’d wonder what the opinions/suggestions would be if I avoided persistent eye contact for a reason? I have a lazy eye that will turn in if I focus for more than a few seconds on a close target. If I look around and change my focal length it “resets” the eye, but I am sure this pattern is noticeable. Is it worse to be looking someone in the eyes with one eye turned slightly cockeyed or to seem nervous or fidgety with flighty eyes? I even underwent ocular surgery, which helped, but did not alleviate the problem. I know the lazy eye is noticeable as I have had comments about it in the past. It is bad enough that in interviews, I am using half my concentration actively worrying about what my eye looks like rather than engaging the interviewer. On the job and socially it doesn’t affect me very much because there is less pressure as opposed to on interviews where the job may hinge on such details. I have considered bringing it up to the interviewer up front so I can try to relax about it, but never tried that strategy.

    1. BeBe*

      Not everyone may agree with me on this, but I’d rather be up front before an interview situation so that you don’t worry about it. When you meet the interviewer, I’d say casually “Just wanted to let you know that I have a bit of a lazy eye. This in no way impacts my vision, but can seem a bit odd to people when making eye contact during conversations.”

      I think interviewers tend to be more understanding of these things if they know.

  33. Mouse of Evil*

    I’m going to put something else out there. Two of my favorite former co-workers at different places were people who didn’t make much eye contact. With both of them, when I finally got some eye contact from them I felt like I had just gotten a compliment. They were both really good at their jobs, but I’d be willing to bet that neither of them was able to make eye contact during the interview. And yet, someone (in one case, the same person who hired me, and he wasn’t known for his understanding and sensitivity) met them, and liked them, and knew they were the right candidates.

    So I’d like to suggest that maybe the right employer for you is the one who understands that eye contact isn’t everyone’s thing, and hires you anyway. :-)

  34. Kay*

    The comments on this post have been so interesting! My husband definitely struggles with eye contact. He has nystagmus which causes his eyes to shift back and forth quickly and makes it really difficult for him to focus on any one point for longer than a couple seconds. He’s never mentioned if it gives him headaches or anything like that, but much of the time when he’s speaking, he actually closes his eyes. He’ll usually open them when the other person is speaking, but closes them when he’s speaking. I always just took it as a weird quirk of his when we were dating until I found out about his nystagmus.

  35. soitgoes*

    I think this is just part of growing up and entering the workforce. Lately (in online media) there’s been such an emphasis on indulging every little human sensitivity. While there’s obviously nothing wrong with being kind to others, I think there’s value in learning how to do something as simple as making eye contact, provided that the OP doesn’t have legit struggles with anxiety and whatnot.

    I interview VERY well, and I’m a freaking oddball. It’s really just a matter of practice. Try making a point of looking your friends in the eye when you go out with them. Once you get the job, you can go back to being as weird as you want to be :)

  36. Willow+Sunstar*

    I used to have problems with this because I was very shy due to a childhood history of having been bullied constantly. I’ve found that Toastmasters has helped me a great deal with this issue. It is sad that companies discriminate against shy people frequently. You can get some practice interviewing with family members or friends, or join a job-seeking support group in your area that has interview practice. Good luck.

  37. LucySmith*

    I find that I don’t have a problem looking at people while they’re talking, but if I’m the one who is talking, I usually look around the room, at the ceiling, or at other people (with periodic quick eye contact). Once I’m done and it’s their turn to talk, I refocus on their face. Most people say that I’m personable and communicate very well, so I don’t think it’s an issue. I do sometimes notice that people are following my gaze, while I’m tracking around the room…so I guess if I didn’t make eye contact periodically, it might be unnerving to them.
    I also can’t look at people if I am walking beside them…if I do, I lose my balance and stagger.

  38. FX-ensis*

    I’ll be honest and say it’s not a matter of fairness. The point of an interview is to get a sort of holistic view of a recruit. So not just his or her qualifications, but knowledge, dress style, mannerisms, and a general feel for the person.

    It’s basic human psychology, in a way. A person who doesn’t use eye contact may lack confidence, be shifty, have something to hide, etc. Some reckon this is just cultural and not innate, but then I think it’s natural in a large way to gain eye contact and relate to others that way.

    You could tell them you have some condition causing this, which may be likely. And it would be illegal for them to discriminate against you. I guess it does seem judgmental in a way, but then I think for certain roles it’s justifiable. A Director/VP who doesn’t use eye contact is not good IMHO, given the high profile role and need to be a public face.

  39. Waiting Patiently*

    I work with 3 – 5 years old in an inclusion setting (early intervention). When I need a child to process information a little bit quicker (esp if they have been set off) I go down to their level, make eye contact (sometimes using my hands as “blinders”) and speak calmly of course–and it works. It’s something to be said for making eye contact and it’s ability to help you listen. Sometimes it’s just way too many distractions. I just had to do this on Thursday after a student had a meltdown in the hallway when we had to change plans for the playground. My chances of getting hit or whacked is extremely high if I don’t do it carefully. We had one grandmother,doing a referral process, told us her grandson punched a teacher because “what was she thinking by getting on his level like that?–she asked for it” I was thinking in my head that’s kind of what we do most of the day lol- well we’re not asking to get hit. I spend most of my day on the floor or sitting in tiny chairs–I never try to use my height over a little one as intimidation. I save that for the older 7th & 8th graders in the after school program –wait some of them are as tall as me. But seriously the 7th and 8th graders are in that socially awkward stage, when I speak to them in the hallway (I don’t work with them everyday) it’s such a huge confidence builder that I this random sub, knows their name and spoke to them. By the next few encounters they are speaking to me with confidence.

    After working in this program for 8 years, I’ve learned that there are some cultural norms and I’m very sensitive and mindful of that as well. I try to go with the confident level of the child. I can so relate to being a painfully shy child and growing up in a family where you were seen but not heard. Not for lack of love but I had 3 other siblings. We were to go to school, learn, be respectful and go outside and play with your friends–you didn’t “play” at school or make friends at school.

  40. Anony*

    I do think this could be a cultural thing. Coming from an Asian background, it Is considered rude to look at someone in the eyes. I also do have that issue, but I always have to remind myself to look at someone in the eye. I still think it’s awkward and as one commenter mention, I kind of also do start to “feel” your personality traits when I stare into them for too long.

  41. Original Poster*

    Hey guys, OP here. Thanks for the feedback. There are a lot of good things to think about in this discussion, and it’s especially nice to hear from so many other people who have this issue. Like I said in my original question, it’s not something that I’m going to stop working on, but a few of the answers made me sigh because…

    1. Do you know how many times in 30 years of working on this I’ve heard “just look at their eyebrows [or nose, or alternate eyes, or…]”? It’s like the people who have never had trouble losing weight saying “oh, just eat fewer calories!” as if the person they’re talking to might have never tried that before. :)

    2. A few people have mentioned how deeply ingrained eye contact is. I think if there’s one thing that the comments here have shown it’s that there’s a significant portion of us for whom that’s not true. I really relate to the commenters who have mentioned that looking at someone’s face when I’m speaking actually gives me *too much* input. Trying to parse their facial expressions derails my train of thought in ways that actually make speaking more difficult. I make much better eye contact when I’m listening instead of speaking.

    3. I think a good thought exercise for the people who are having a hard time visualizing the difficulty of this is to imagine having to conduct your entire interview standing on one foot. When you first contemplate the idea it seems easy. I can do that! Standing on one foot for a little bit is no problem, so I’ll just keep doing that the whole time! It’s not like there’s any physical reason I can’t do this! Then you actually give it a try. Five minutes in your leg is tired. Ten minutes in, your leg is exhausted. Fifteen minutes in you either have to put your other leg on the floor or you’re focusing so much concentration on *not* doing that that you can’t correctly pay attention to the interviewer’s questions.

    4. For the people who questioned whether something as small as eye contact can really be the deciding factor: I think it’s not exactly the eye contact that’s the problem, but what people interpret it to mean. Like I said in my original post, internally I’ve felt very comfortable in these interviews, but apparently my body language reads as uncomfortable and people mention the eye contact as the thing that gives them that impression. And yes, I think these were interviews where the other candidate had a similarly strong resume, so the deciding factor comes down to things like “fit.”

    1. Nemo*

      Hi OP,

      I just hired someone who had an eye-contact issue for a somewhat academic position that requires meetings with new people occasionally.

      The interviewers noticed the eye contact issue fairly quickly and assumed this was a mannerism, not nervousness. I used to mentor autistic children, so it was very obvious to me as well, and I was also sympathetic that this is involuntary.

      The question then, as all good employers should ask, is “will this affect the person’s work?” Ultimately, we found the eye-contact thing a bit distracting, and wondered if others would find this distracting in meetings as well. We figured that people probably would, but it would be a minor thing that was easily overcome. The candidate was also very socially attentive in other ways, which gave us confidence. Still, we decided the references would really guide us on our decision. We called them and in the face of one glowing interview I asked about “nervousness or eye-contact issues.” As I mentioned, we were fairly certain this was a mannerism and not nervousness, but it is a difficult issue to raise with a reference. After talking to the references we thought that the eye-contact thing would not really be an issue for the job and decided to hire. Here are some specific thoughts:

      1. Alison says, “Rightly or wrongly, people do read lack of eye contact as “not comfortable.” And “not comfortable” can be a real rapport killer. It’s understandable that if an interviewer is talking to multiple qualified candidates, they might gravitate toward ones they have good rapport with. ” I would add employers also think “I am fine with this person’s obvious eye contact issues, but how will the people I need this hire to meet react to this?”
      2. I could see situations where the eye-contact issue could definitely be the difference between two candidates in anything where you have to meet outside people. If this candidate was not as compelling or if we were not reassured by their social demeanor or references we might not have hired. We had other compelling candidates, so it’s not as if the option was “poor eye contact” vs “terrible.” It was more like “Great” vs. “Great +1 + eye contact issues.”
      3. I would suspect you could probably get professional help on this issue, and that it might be a good investment. Eye contact is not just about not meeting someone’s eyes, but often about looking at strange things. We all make eye contact only sometimes, and one question is what you do with your eyes when you are not making contact (sometimes looking someplace odd).

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