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Dropping eye contact with someone mid-conversation is a societal no-no. However, science has driven a rather pointy stick into the heart of that ancient assumption.
Eye contact is a social problem. Depending on who you speak to, there’s either not enough of it, or oi, what are you looking at? It’s a minefield. Considering I’m of the camp of diverted attention, let me say something while I have yours, it’s not that I don’t want to look you in the eyes, I just literally cannot.
According to the findings of one study, it turns out we’re not rude, our brains just make with the eye contact and the topic at the same time.
Scientists from Kyoto University in Japan put this to the test by having volunteers play word association games while staring at computer-generated faces.
When making eye contact, the participants found it harder to come up with links between words.
“Although eye contact and verbal processing appear independent, people frequently avert their eyes from interlocutors during conversation,” wrote the researchers.
“This suggests that there is interference between these processes.”
The subjects were asked to think of links between both easily associated words and words that were substantially more tricky.
Example. Thinking of a verb for ‘knife’ is relatively easy, because you can easily cut or stab someone. Whereas, an associated verb for ‘folder’ is harder, considering you could open, close, or fill them. Which is easy, because I told you. Here’s a further test. Think of one for ‘flange’. If your eyes diverted course, science totally did you good.
The volunteers also took longer to think of words when they were making eye contact, but only when the difficulty was ratcheted up. The researchers suspect the hesitation indicates the brain is handling too much information at once.
So while making eye contact and holding a conversation is certainly possible, point at this evidence for the reason why it’s completely impossible to assume this as the etiquette-standard. We all have different depths of the pool of cognitive resources, so don’t judge.