To Look, or Not to Look: Eye Contact Guide for Introvert Developers Using Visual Dominance Ratio VDR

Edited photo from my favourite show Sesame Street

“Eyes are the window to the soul.”

It’s an old saying in China. Eye contact plays a crucial role in nonverbal communications. As an introvert software developer/data scientist who love plaid shirt, I often ask myself a question during networking events: “Should I look at him/her or not?” If you have the same question as I do, this article might provide a compass called “VDR” to guide us in the conversations.

To keep it simple, I will introduce the VDR-based methodology and psychological goals in the three most common scenarios:

  • Talk to to your lead/customers
  • Talk to your peers
  • Talk to strangers

What is “VDR” and how to compute it

“VDR” stands for visual dominance ratio which is a concept in psychology used to quantify eye contact behaviour in an interaction which introduced by Dovidio and Ellyson.

VDR = (% eye contact while speaking) / (% eye contact while listening)

A person’s VDR is calculated by dividing the percentage of time the person looks into another person’s eyes while speaking by the percentage of time he/she looks into another person’s eyes while listening.

For example, assuming we have a chat, I look into your eyes 70% of the time while I am speaking, and 70% of the time while I am listening to you. Then my VDR = 70% / 70% = 1.00.

If you look into my eyes 80% of the time while you are speaking, and 40% of the time while I am speaking to you, then your VDR = 80% / 40% = 2.00.

In this case, your VDR is greater than my VDR. Often this conveys that you think what you have say is more important than I do (I’m fine with that). Conversely, if you make eye contact when you are listening, and avoid eye contact when you are speaking, this will generate a VDR lower than 1.00 which is usually associated with subordination.

As shown in above example, VDR can be used as one of the social power indicators of the individual in conversations. Next question would be: how to apply the VDR theory in your daily communications?

Three common scenarios

1. Talk to your lead/customers

Set a low VDR (<0.80) by maintaining eye contact most of the time while listening and look at other places sometimes when you are talking. The reason is that when speak to high status individuals, for example, your lead/customers/mentor/supervisor, you would like to show your respect. Psychologically, looking at him or her while they are speaking conveys the message that I value your insights and I believe they are important.

2. Talk to your peers

Generally, it would be appropriate to have a VDR around 1.00 on average when speak to peers and colleagues. You also could adjust the VDR by the relationship of you two. The more you are familiar with him, the less necessary in eye contact.

3. Talk to strangers

Try to maintain eye contact for 70%~80% of the time while listening and 50% of the time while speaking. Once you establish eye contact, hold it for 3~5 seconds. It helps to display your interest, curiosity and confidence. It also makes people feel that you are humble, friendly and pleasant.

Now it is your turn. What VDR value would you set up in the following situations:

  • Negotiating the price
  • Conversation in a big meeting room vs in an elevator
  • Dating: you want to play hard to get /easygoing
  • Request: asking for help

To look, or not to look, that’s not a problem anymore. By understanding VDR and the psychological tricks behind, you can tune it to work for you in order to serve the goals, wether you want to be a friendly colleague/good boss/perfect teammate, or you want to play tough/cool/fool.

Sailing on a foggy day could feel lost. VDR serves as a compass that we can use to guide us to a more efficient conversation and display social power as we want in the interactions. Most important trick — Be true, be sincere. Together, we can build a happier sesame street. Hold on, I mean, a happier workplace.

photo credit to sesame street



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