My Biggest Competitive Advantage Is to Look You in the Eye

We need to recognize that in a world that’s headed toward less and less face-to-face interaction, we need to value it more

Brian Grazer


A photo of Brian Grazer.
Brian Grazer at the 92nd Street Y on September 17, 2019. Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

II have always believed there is magic in face-to-face human interactions. As a child struggling with undiagnosed dyslexia, I turned to people to learn about the world. As a young filmmaker, I came to find that some of the most emotionally impactful moments in a movie happen when characters meet each other’s gaze — in moments of confrontation or confession or love at first sight. Throughout my life, I’ve learned that such connections are more than just a storytelling device; they are the antidote to much of what ails us. I have come to believe that our ability to see one another better depends, quite literally, on us seeing each other at all.

It turns out that humans are hardwired for face-to-face communication. We know, for example, that there are specific cells in our brain, known as “mirror neurons,” that discharge when we’re learning to imitate social cues from one another. Studies show that when mothers and babies look at each other, their brain waves actually sync up and produce oxytocin, a chemical often described as the “love hormone.” Evolutionary biologists even surmise that the whites of our eyes evolved so that we could better follow each other’s gaze.

It is through face-to-face interaction that we develop the essential traits of social beings: empathy, trust, and mutual respect. And it’s in its absence that we often see the darker side of human nature. There’s a reason why we have a road rage problem, but not a sidewalk rage problem, why internet trolls can be so vicious online and so meek in real life. It’s as though we are more apt to humanize those we can see, and to dehumanize those we cannot.

I know, from my own career, how important face-to-face interaction can be. The best movies and shows I’ve produced worked because they were fundamentally grounded in deep human truths (like love and self-empowerment) the kind that can only be mined through real human connection. This is true in so many walks of life, from medicine and management to teaching and diplomacy. And so it begs the question: What happens when we start eliminating face-to-face interaction from the human experience?

The truth is that the technological developments of the past several decades have made each of us inescapable participants in a global experiment to answer that very question. Though there are many great benefits that have come from the internet, smartphones, and social media, these inventions have also done more to curtail in-person human connection than any in human history. From 2000 to 2015, for example, the number of teens who said they hung out nearly every day with friends dropped by 40%. We now spend, on average, half of our waking hours using technology. Should it be any surprise, then, that the average American hasn’t made a new friend in five years?

The decline in face-to-face human contact has coincided with the rise of America’s great loneliness epidemic, one that is felt most profoundly by millennials and Gen Zers — the digital native generations. Today, despite their massive social networks, 20% of millennials (who are now mostly in their twenties and thirties) say they don’t have any real friends. Eighth graders who use social media for an average of just 10 hours a week are 56% more likely to report being unhappy than those who don’t. And studies are ongoing today to determine how social media impacts the development of young brains.

The epidemic, importantly, is not confined to the young. Fully half of all Americans report being lonely. We are somehow more connected than ever before, yet we feel lonelier than we ever have.

A lack of human interaction isn’t just painful — it can be deadly. Loneliness is associated with higher incidents of depression, insomnia, drug abuse, suicide, heart disease, and stroke. According to a 2010 study conducted at Brigham Young University, loneliness can lead to a 15-year decrease in lifespan.

So how do we solve this problem? Let’s start with how we don’t. We don’t solve it by carefully curating a post on Instagram that tells our friends we’re leaving social media forever. Nor do we solve it by trading in our smartphones for flip phones and our email for postage. Fad diets never work, and abstinence is a terrible policy. After all, used properly, these innovations can provide a wonderful complement to human connection.

Instead, we need to recognize that in a world that’s headed toward less and less face-to-face interaction, we need to value it more. That means actually making time for it. Emotional connection, empathy, and trust are not merely essential to our well-being, but to the survival of our species itself. We need to open our eyes and make more time for interaction, both spontaneous and planned, especially with those sitting and standing right in front of us.

The most meaningful conversations in my life have happened when we have both been fully present, looking each other in the eye, without devices.

Let’s focus on what we gain in these moments, rather than what we lose in their absence. When we’re at work, research shows that face-to-face requests are 34 times more effective than emailed ones. And when we get home, let’s remember that people who spend above-average time with their friends in person are 30% less likely to say they’re unhappy than those who don’t. Human connection may be just as good for you as exercise.

The most meaningful conversations in my life have happened when we have both been fully present, looking each other in the eye, without devices. A 2012 study found that “meaningful conversation topics” between partners only fostered intimacy when phones weren’t present. It turns out that even when a phone is just sitting idly on the table, trying to ignore it creates its own distraction.

In addition to improving the conversations we do have, we should be more active in scheduling ones we otherwise wouldn’t. When I was in my late twenties, I pledged to myself that at least once every two weeks, I would meet with someone new, in a field other than my own, without ambition or agenda. I called these my curiosity conversations, and they were meant purely for that — to learn from others and to build human connections in the process. It’s been forty years since, and I’ve never missed one.

When I meet an actor’s eyes in a meeting or my children’s across the dinner table, it offers the best opportunity to build trust and open up to one another. We feel valued and validated, which creates empathy, almost as instinct. It’s in those moments of implicit trust and explicit connection that we really do see each other.

I’ve built my entire career on two things: curiosity and human connection. I depend on face-to-face conversations, relationships, and spontaneous interactions to challenge myself, to keep growing and learning, to broaden my perspective, and to disrupt my comfort zone. There is little doubt in my mind that this approach has been, and continues to be, a huge competitive advantage in my life, both in terms of my success and my happiness. It’s in human connection that our real stories live, and in meaningful relationships that the real magic lies.

The truth is that everyone can do this. And all of us should. It makes us healthier and happier. It makes us kinder and more thoughtful. It creates possibilities, adventure, empathy, and openness. A single moment, face to face, can trigger endless opportunities we might otherwise never discover. So let’s all take a step toward one another, to see each other for who we are, where we are. In a changing world, at such a pivotal moment, this is, perhaps, our most essential work.

Brian Grazer is the author of Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection and co-founder of Imagine Entertainment.



Brian Grazer
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I make movies and TV shows but I am curious about everything. My new book, Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection is out now!