CHAPTER 5: CULTURE & EYE CONTACT



Making good eye contact is a fundamental social skill. Numerous studies have shown that people who make higher-levels of eye contact with others are perceived as being more attractive, competent, sincere and confident. The issue is that communication signals can be interpreted differently, depending on circumstances and cultures.

In many western societies, a person who does not mantain good eye contact is regarded as being suspicious. Americans unconsciously associate people who avoid eye contact as being  unfriendly, insicure, inattentive and impersonal. Englishmen are taught to pay attention to the speaker, blinking eyes to let the person know they are listening. In contrast, Japanese children are taught to direct their gaze at the Adam’s apple and, as adults, they lower their eyes when speaking to a superior as a gesture of respect.

Latin American cultures as well as some African ones have longer looking time, but prolonged eye contact from an individual of lower status is considered disrespectful. In the US it is considered rude to stare, regardless of who is looking at whom.

A widening of the eyes can also be tricky. Consider the case of an American and a Chinese manager discussing the terms of a contract. Regardless of the language, the US negotiator may interpret the Chinese person’s widened eyes as an expression of astonishment instead of a danger signal, as the true meaning is that of polite anger.