It’s been said many times: “You cannot NOT communicate.” Never is
this observation truer than when it comes to eye contact. When we look someone in the eye, that person receives some kind of message, whether we
intend to send one or not. A short glance could signal curiosity or disinterest, attraction or rejection, respect or lack thereof, and so on. A
longer, more intense look at another person may be interpreted as anything from love and affection to an outright personal attack.
Aware of these implications, we usually try to adjust our eye contact to the situation,
following a set of unwritten rules such as “keeping eye contact conveys sincerity and builds trust” or “if you don’t want to
start a conversation, look away quickly if your eyes meet.” These rules depend on situational context. For instance, looking away is ok with
strangers but may give those who know us better a feeling that we have something to hide.
Complex? You bet it is. Unfortunately, as with many other aspects of
communication, this gets even more complicated when working across cultures, as the introductory story illustrates. While I was obviously not aware
of it, I may indeed have looked the British gentleman in the eye much longer than he was comfortable with. In my native Germany, where I still
lived at the time, strangers might actually keep longer eye contact than in many other cultures. A German expression for a person looking at another
one for an extended time without attempting to make contact loosely translates to “looking straight through someone.” Doing so is
possibly considered very rude elsewhere. The U.K. rule set, for example, is stricter and ‘stepping over the line’ is more readily
interpreted as offensive, as happened in the situation described. The fact that this scene took place on ‘neutral ground,’ in Belgium,
made no difference whatsoever.
This gets even more convoluted between members of certain cultures whose rule sets
differ greatly. For instance, the Chinese frequently complain about U.S.-Americans being overly aggres- sive, claiming that the latter tend to
‘stare’ at their counterparts. The flip side of this argument is that the Chinese custom of looking away as a sign of respect is often
interpreted as evasive- ness and ‘sneakiness’ by visitors from the States.
When to Make Eye Contact and When to Look Away
As a general rule, expect most people in the U.S., Canada, Europe, the Arab world,
and Australia to keep frequent eye contact. At least in business settings, you will want to do the same as doing so conveys sincerity and
trustworthiness. Exceptions are countries such as the U.K., Ireland, and a few others where eye contact tends to be less frequent.
In contrast, most Asians interpret intense eye contact as aggressive and intrusive,
so look away more often than you might be inclined to. This is especially important when dealing with a higher-ranking or more powerful counterpart
who might interpret intense looks as open challenges.
When dealing with Latin Americans or most Africans, know that they commonly share the
view that eye contact conveys sincerity and builds trust. However, consider also that most cultures in these regions are very hierarchical. While
executives and others in positions of power may keep intense eye contact, subordinates are expected to look away more often as a sign of respect
for their counterpart.