During a job interview, body language is incredibly important. The non-verbal signals we send with our hands, posture, and even our eyes can ultimately decide whether we get a job offer. Eye contact, specifically, is a big part of that. If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone who consciously or unconsciously avoids eye contact, it’s hard not to notice.
Now, put yourself in the position of an interviewer. Would you hire someone who can’t manage to look you in the eye? Probably not — you’re going to be wondering if they were lying or concealing something. For that reason, you’ll see “maintaining eye contact” featured on just about any list of interview tips.
It’s tricky, though: You want to make sure you’re maintaining eye contact. But if you try too hard? You’ll probably come across as weirder or more awkward than if you just stared at the floor. There’s a balance to strike, and for a lot of people, it may require some practice.
So, why is it so difficult for some people to manage? After all, we interact with people every day, be they family members, spouses, etc. Most of us don’t have trouble, or at least give much thought to where we affix our eyes when talking to people we are comfortable around. What happens when we encounter strangers or high-stress situations like job interviews?
Why we lose eye contact
A new study, published in the journal Cognition, attempted to answer that question. Researchers Shogo Kajimura and Michio Nomura, both of the University of Kyoto in Japan, tested whether eye contact makes it harder for us to formulate speech. Their paper specifically looked at verb generation, and whether our brain can become overloaded while simultaneously attempting to generate verbs while maintaining eye contact.
As it turns out, it can.
“Although eye contact and verbal processing appear independent, people frequently avert their eyes from interlocutors during conversation. This suggests that there is interference between these processes,” the paper said. “We hypothesized that such interference occurs because both processes share cognitive resources of a domain-general system and explored the influence of eye contact on simultaneous verb generation processes (i.e., retrieval and selection).”
They ran an experiment in which 26 people were asked to look at a stranger’s face via a screen, and perform a speech exercise. The people on-screen alternated between making eye contact and looking away while the speech exercise was conducted. They found the participants did indeed have more trouble speaking when eye contact was being made — even if they were speaking with someone on-screen.
From this experiment, the researchers determined that neural pathways and resources can be tapped simultaneously while making eye contact and speaking. This may explain why we have trouble maintaining eye contact during an interview.
Interview tips: Remain aware of your body language
“Faces with eyes directed toward the viewer delayed verbal generation more than a movie of faces with averted eyes; however, this effect was only present when both retrieval and selection demands were high,” the paper said. “The results support the hypothesis that eye contact shares domain-general cognitive resource with verb generation.”
So, our brains are simply having trouble handling the task of maintaining eye contact while simultaneously allowing us to speak with any sort of articulation. That doesn’t mean we can’t do it — just that it’s taxing on our neural pathways.
If you’re someone who can manage to pull it off with ease, you have a big advantage, and that can manifest itself in an increased levels of charisma or confidence. Both of which are incredibly important in most settings, but especially when interviewing for a job. If you know that this is an area where you could improve? You could practice, as with anything else.
An easy way to start training yourself to be better is to be cognizant of your level of eye contact during everyday interactions. Again, you have to strike a balance. Too much eye contact will make others uncomfortable. Too little, and they’ll feel ignored, or that you’re uninterested.
Eye contact and body language are difficult to grasp, especially when they’re largely unconscious to most of us. But they can make all the difference in some situations. Practice, and you’ll be able to improve.