Eye Contact Across Cultures
By: Julie L. Parenteau, Ph.D. and Jennifer Alvarez
Nonverbal cues are the source of much intercultural miscommunication. What is left unsaid is often misinterpreted by people from other cultures, creating a source of misunderstanding with potentially life-threatening consequences. One of the most misinterpreted forms of nonverbal communication is the use of eye contact. Some cultures expect direct eye contact while others condone it. Some consider direct eye contact between those of the same gender acceptable, while reserving eye contact between opposite sexes as appropriate only in intimate situations. With so many cultural differences across geographical region, we thought it important to give our readers a guide to this form of communication.
Middle Eastern cultures view eye contact as something to be strictly avoided. This is particularly true between those of opposite sexes, with the exception of use between family members. Such norms are based on strict religious rules that prohibit interaction between the sexes. However, eye contact between men shows confidence and sends the impression that what is being said is based on truth. Men who maintain eye contact during conversations with other men are thought to be trustworthy.
When interacting with people from these cultures, it is important for Westerns to know about these communication differences because any prolonged eye contact between a man and woman can insinuate that an intimate interaction is desired. This is particularly important if you want to avoid any repercussions that may occur if thought to be trying to steal someone’s mate.
Although there are many cultural and communication differences between Asian, African, and Latin American cultures, they generally coincide on the use of eye contact. These groups are more hierarchical in nature, believing that there are social and age-based reasons to show respect to those in authority. Their eye contact demonstrates this. Those in authority (parents, teachers) are expected to look directly at the person with whom they are speaking, but those lower in the social hierarchy (children, students) are expected to deflect their look, often by looking down. This is seen as a sign of respect and should not be interpreted as a lack of confidence.
People who grow up in the United States learn that it is respectful to look someone in the eye when spoken to or when speaking to others. This shows interest in what is being said. It also demonstrates a sense of confidence and conviction in one’s ideas. If the speaker avoids eye contact, s/he is thought to be hiding something or lacking knowledge of the topic. If the listener, however, avoids eye contact, it shows that the listener is distracted and not paying attention. An exception to this cultural norm is when in crowded spaces like elevators. In those cases, eye contact is avoided.
In much of Western Europe, the norms are much like those in the United States. Looking people in the eye is considered polite and should be maintained throughout the conversation. This is particularly important in business settings. One difference between the U.S. and places like France, for example, is that eye contact can be interpreted in more flirtatious ways. The French may casually use eye contact to let someone know that s/he is interested in getting to know her/him. Visitors should be aware of this interpretation to reduce cultural misunderstandings.
Before traveling or relocating to another country, take the time to learn about cultural differences. Knowing what is socially acceptable can help you avoid making serious cultural mistakes. Relocation specialists like those at Global Perceptions can help! Make your international move a smooth one by taking part in our cultural adaptation seminars! To learn more, visit http://www.global-perceptions.com/