I am an optimist by nature, a glass half-full kind of person. (Funny aside for a moment -- a colleague once said to me, "I don't see the glass as half full or half empty, I see the wrong-sized glass.") I rarely use my blog to complain about something. This does not mean I don't have things that irritate me; I am definitely not Mother Teresa.
But, today, I will depart from my normal cheery self and tell you about my latest pet peeve.
Lately, I've been at a couple of conferences attended by more than 200 people. During the breaks, I speak to people, as I am sure you do too. Networking is an important part of conferences, and I genuinely enjoy meeting new people. But I am always amazed by the folks who are talking to me and at the same time, looking over my shoulder. This is one of my pet peeves. It drives me crazy to talk to someone who is obviously looking for someone better to come along or for the circus to come to town.
How hard is it to pay attention to the person in front of you for 30 seconds or at most, one or two minutes? I'm not saying that the person I'm talking to needs to maintain eye contact every single second we speak; this is actually a little creepy. But, as far as I can tell, the space above either of my shoulders is fairly non-responsive: it can't tell a joke or a good story, and it does not contain the secrets of a happy life. So why would anyone stare at it?
I cross my eyes. They don't notice. I haven't stuck my tongue out yet, but there are times I would like to. I disengage as courteously as I can and walk away.
I understand that many people are naturally shy, and eye contact can make them feel uncomfortable. These are not the people I'm talking about. In fact, I give shy people full marks for being in a social situation that must be a little painful for them.
In the last year, I have met a few notable people at conferences, who, by rights, could have shaken my hand and kept moving: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Warren Buffett and the humanitarian Graça Machel, to name a few. And yet, each one stopped for 10 to 15 seconds, looked me in the eye, exchanged a few words with me and then graciously stepped away. Yes, you could say that this is what public figures and politicians do, and I agree. But when I met each one of them, none of them were running for office and each one had nothing to gain by enchanting me.
For those of you who are panicking at the thought of speaking to a stranger, establishing eye contact, or potentially being trapped by someone when you would rather have a cup of coffee or three minutes of silence, I have an elegant solution that works 99 times out of 100. This is what I do upon meeting a new person:
• I shake their hand, look them in the eye and smile.
• I say something relevant about the meeting that can either invite discussion, or could be closed very quickly.
• I move on within two minutes; coffee here I come!
And here's the thing, most folks appreciate it when you make eye contact. Just the other day someone remarked to me that she vividly remembered the first time we met because I had looked in the eye when I spoke to her. Really? This simple act was memorable? I think it's the price of doing business with people.
So here's my request: if I ever have the pleasure of meeting you in person, let's agree to look each other in the eye when we meet, and to maintain reasonable eye contact throughout our conversation. I promise to adjust my expectations based on cultural differences, or if you are shy. It's important to be sensitive to others' feelings; the workplace would be untenable if we didn't take others' preferences into consideration.
Any thoughts? I promise to look you in the eye when you share them with me.