Eyeing International Body Language
Eye contact is such a big issue in American culture, and something that’s often so hard to master, that you might be disheartened to know that what you learned in Chapter 7 doesn’t necessarily apply to other cultures. Don’t worry. Different cultures have different levels of appropriate eye contact, but in some cases it boils down to all (in other words, extended eye contact) or nothing (no eye contact at all). Once you figure out which cultures expect lots of eye contact and which expect none, the rest is easy.
In Chapter 7, you learned how to use eye contact to your benefit and how to read the eyes of those around you. In Western culture, eye contact is not only polite, it’s used to decode almost every relationship and interaction you have. Too much eye contact means one thing; too little means something else entirely.
While Americans cherish eye contact as the definitive marker of a friendly interaction, other cultures avoid the intimate gaze altogether. Let’s say you’ve just arrived in Tokyo. You’re lost and trying to catch some friendly eye so that you might ask directions. No one will look your way, however. You’re wondering if you’ve done something to offend—is it your shirt? Your shoes? Your hairdo?
Even if your hair is looking a bit scary after your long plane ride, it’s not the reason no one is meeting your gaze. The Japanese routinely avoid eye contact with other people. It’s considered disrespectful to stare into someone else’s eyes, so they keep their eyes to themselves. It’s helpful to know this if you’re visiting Japan, but it’s especially important to put this into practice if you have business dealings with a Japanese company. Because respect is part of the identity of a Japanese person, you need to go out of your way to follow their cues and keep your eye contact to a minimum.
Western cultures love to use and analyze eye contact, but eye contact is kept to a minimum in Japan, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin American countries. Keeping the eyes to oneself is a sign of respect for the other person.
It’s also helpful to know about this difference in cultures on a personal level. Your Japanese neighbor might come off as unfriendly if you don’t understand why she never looks your way. Knowing that this is the way she was raised and that a lack of eye contact is actually her way of being polite will help you reserve judgment until you know her better.
Let’s say you’ve arrived in Saudi Arabia for a business meeting. You arrive at the office, where you shake hands with your hosts before you begin to talk shop. You notice that as you’re speaking, all eyes are on you … and they don’t take a break. Not once. There’s no looking away or off to the side or down at the ground, even for a second. You’re starting to feel very uncomfortable, wondering if this is some sort of attempt at intimidation.
It isn’t. Prolonged eye contact (coupled with close proximity) is the norm in Arab countries. Extended eye contact is a sign of respect here, just as the avoidance of eye contact is a sign of respect in Japan. In fact, people who don’t comply with this expectation in the Arab world are viewed as rather suspicious. Your best bet is to get comfortable with all eyes being on you and to return the gaze when someone else is speaking.
Did I Lose You?
You’ve been asked to give a presentation at your office’s weekly meeting. You’ve worked hard preparing your materials and you’re feeling pretty confident as you stand up to regale your colleagues and superiors with your knowledge of the intricate workings of your industry. After you’ve been talking nonstop for fifteen minutes, you stop to take questions and you notice everyone’s eyes are closed. Your first thought is, “Well, now I’ve really done it. I’ve bored them into comas.”
This is undoubtedly a bad sign in the American workplace, but if you were presenting your work in Japan, Thailand, or China, you’d actually come away from this meeting thinking that you’d given your audience something to mull over. That’s right—closing the eyes in these cultures is a way of saying, “I hear you and I’m giving your idea some serious thought.”
If you raise your brows at someone else in this country, it’s a way of indicating that you want him to believe what you’re saying, whether or not you’re telling the whole truth. Raised brows might also accompany an expression of fear or shock. In parts of Asia, however, raised brows take the place of the head nod; that is, to say “yes” in these countries, you simply raise your brows.
Meanwhile, in the Philippines, don’t try to agree with someone’s point of view by shimmying your brows up and down. In this country, the brow raise is a way of saying “Hello.” Continually raising and lowering your brows is the equivalent of saying, “Hi. Hi. Hi. Hi. Hi.”