Look at me when I'm talking to you

Eye contact is on the decline, thanks to mobile technology. And it's destroying our social norms in the workplace.

"Um, hello?"

OK, quick show of (virtual) hands: how many times have you, in the middle of someone talking to you, glanced down at your smartphone?

No? Too disrespectful? How many times, then, have you allowed your gaze to drift away from their face and onto something you knew was irrelevant: a stranger passing behind them, or a sign of some sort just over their shoulder, or the inanimate sheets of paper on the table between you?

Exactly. You're not alone.

A Wall Street Journal report notes that this phenomenon — the decline of eye contact — is quite real. And it's a real problem that's screwing with how we perceive each other, especially in the office.

Columnist Sue Shellenbarger offers a few examples:

Some psychologists point to FOMO, or "fear of missing out" on social opportunities, says a study published earlier this year in Computers in Human Behavior. Young adults who are dissatisfied with their lives or relationships feel compelled to check mobile gadgets repeatedly to see what social opportunities they are missing — even when they don't enjoy it, the study says.

Because of the trend toward home-based and other remote work, people have become accustomed to talking without making eye contact, says Dana Brownlee, founder of Professionalism Matters, a corporate-training company in Atlanta. She cites a manager at a South Carolina financial-services company who started offering prizes to get employees to meet face to face. "People were dialing into meetings from offices that were literally just a few cubicles down the hall," Ms. Brownlee says.

OK, so telecommute-style working hardly fosters in-office teamwork, and our common penchant to check our mobile devices ceaselessly is no model of self control. But productivity impacts aside, is it really that bad?

It sure is. Because eye contact is a key biological tool we all have to influence others. And in this age of digital distraction, we're all sending the wrong message to each other.

Shellenbarger, again:

Looking at a colleague when speaking conveys confidence and respect. Prolonged eye contact during a debate or disagreement can signal you're standing your ground. It also points to your place on the food chain: People who are high-status tend to look longer at people they're talking to, compared with others, says a 2009 research review in Image and Vision Computing.

When people withhold eye contact out of carelessness or disrespect, it speaks volumes.

Anecdotally, we all know this to be true — and yet most of us probably didn't make it through the morning without letting our attention on someone else drift, be it a coworker or spouse. Which means we're telling others, without verbalizing: I don't know. I'm nervous. You can't take my word for it. I'm sorry, what were you saying? I need more coffee.

Not usually the kind of message you want to send on a regular basis. ("Man, that new VP is a piece of work, isn't he?")

So what's the answer? Seven to ten seconds in a conversation with one other person, three to five seconds in a group. Longer than ten seconds and people will perceive you as aggressive; longer than twenty and people will think you're entirely creepy. (Blink, dude. Just blink.) 

And if you appear as if you're counting seconds while listening to someone, well, they just might think you read this post.