The UnLonely Project, an offshoot of the Boston-based Foundation for Art and Healing, works to combat loneliness and social isolation in the US. They have a particular focus on workplaces: In a country where more than 40% of people say they are lonely, “people bring their loneliness to work,” said founder Jeremy Nobel.
Project staff working with one major tech company learned that many of the firm’s employees, particularly younger males, were struggling with basic interpersonal skill to a degree that was hurting their work teams. At a recent panel at the Milken Institute Future of Health Summit in Washington DC, Nobel said the employer has started teaching employees how to make eye contact as part of their new hire training.
“You can’t collaborate and connect with other people if you can’t make eye contact,” Nobel said. Helping employees learn those skills is “good for their business model.”
Nobel wouldn’t publicly name the company, but he said it was one of the FAANGs—an acronym that refers to Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google. Quartz contacted those five companies to ask if eye contact is covered in new hire training. Facebook denied offering any such training; the others didn’t get back to us.
If you feel that you, too, could benefit from a refresher course on appropriate eye contact, Michigan State University Extension offers a helpful primer: Use the 50/70 rule (eye contact for 50% of the time when you’re speaking, 70% when you’re listening); establish eye contact before you start to speak; hold it for four to five seconds; look to the side, not down, when your eyes leave the other person’s.
For people raised in a screen-saturated environment, and who perhaps are more comfortable in technology-mediated interactions than face-to-face ones, these basic conversational skills may not feel all that intuitive. People in the US now spend an estimated 10 hours a day in front of screens. The same technology that has enabled distributed teams and remote work also makes it easier to get through a work day without having to engage in a productive face-to-face conversation.
Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, said she fears that if a person has made it to adulthood without learning how to hold appropriate eye contact during a conversation, it may be too late to master it.
“The ability at an early age to begin to form eye contact and learn about social smiling—this is a basic part of our development as human beings,” she said during the panel. “If we are blocking the development of those social skills through too much screen time and too much time interacting with electronic devices, it may be impossible to teach those skills to an adult. Developmentally we’re ready to learn language [and] social connection when we’re very young.”