It has been said that the eyes are “the windows to the soul.” Eye contact is very powerful. This is why criminal investigators are often taught to observe eye movement in order to help determine whether a suspect is being truthful or not.
In most Western cultures, the typical period of time that is comfortable for holding eye contact is 5 to 10 seconds, then an occasional glance away is normal. Looking away in many cultures can often send a message of disinterest, or dishonesty, or lack of confidence. If either the length or the frequency of eye contact differs from the “norm,” many people might think that you are being rude or offensive. They might also interpret your behavior as an attempt to exert power or as flirting.
Other potential nonverbal problems when dealing with customers can be caused by looking down before answering questions, glancing away continually as your customer talks, blinking excessively, and other such eye movements can create a negative impression.
In any case, your customer might become uncomfortable and may react in an undesirable manner (for example, becoming upset or ending the conversation) if you use eye contact in what they perceive as an inappropriate manner.
As with all other aspects of workplace interaction in a multicultural customer service environment, do not forget that cultural values and practices often influence the way in which people communicate and interpret message signals.
Just as you send messages with your eyes, your customer’s eye contact can also send meaningful messages to you. A customer’s lack of direct eye contact with you could send a variety of messages in a westernized culture. It might send messages such as, a lack of interest, confidence, trust, or dishonesty, depending on how you interpret those cues. For example, if you are watching a customer shop and notice a quick loss of eye contact each time you try to engage the customer visually, the customer might be nervous because he or she is shoplifting, or the customer simply might not want your attention and assistance.
As with any other form of nonverbal communication, always look for clusters or multiple cues before interpreting meaning and deciding on a course of action. This is because you are dealing with humans whose background, gender, personality, culture and various other factors can easily impact their intent. If you filter based on you own personal beliefs or background, you can potentially cause a service and/or relationship breakdown with your customer.