Eye Contact Norms

photo of eyes looking directly at you featured on intercultural101.com

Eye Contact

One of the most common complaints when cultures collide is over eye contact. In the mainstream North American culture, direct and sustained eye contact conveys interest, respect, and even friendliness. Speakers are expected to look one another directly in the eyes while they talk and only occasionally glance away.

Other cultures, in Latin America and Asia, treat eye contact quite differently. Young people are expected to defer to their elders with averted eyes, and direct eye contact can convey disrespect or even overt aggression.

Think of the problems this can create if the speakers are unaware of this difference. A teacher, potential employer or new in-laws can find be offended–sometimes without even knowing why–when the wrong manner of eye contact is applied.

Has this ever happened to you? If so, when and where? Were you able to overcome the misunderstanding, or did it create barriers that were hard to pull down? I’d love to be able to hear specific examples.