Author: Marlene Johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand that different cultures may attribute very different meanings to eye contact and eye movement in communication.

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It's often said that eyes are windows to the soul. And here in the United States we use eye contact to communicate in a variety of ways, and all cultures do. But there can be a vast misunderstanding in the way different cultures use eye contact. I'm Marlene, and in this tutorial today I'd like to take up the subject of eye contact, or oculesics, with you.

So eye contact-- oculesics-- which is a way of communicating with the eyes, and look at some of the cultural differences that there are. So let's start with direct eye contact. Direct eye contact is very common here in the United States. We expect people to make direct eye contact with us as a sign of they're interested. They're engaged. It can also in a business setting a send a message that you're bold. You're confident.

In fact, if you don't make eye contact, it may look like you're unsure of yourself. So we're very comfortable doing this. We do it unconsciously, instantaneously because that's the message we've been taught culturally to think that we're sending. And we are sending that within our own culture.

However, if you were to go to Asia, direct eye contact sends a very different signal. It can be seen as an affront, disrespectful, or even a challenge. Particularly if you're making that eye contact with someone who's in a position of authority above you. So it would be more proper to look away. Have brief, sporadic eye contact. Which is something that, of course, we would not interpret as-- we would interpret very differently here in the United States.

Now also in some cultures, direct eye contact between a woman or a man-- even just quick eye contact-- can signal different things. A woman from the United States may make eye contact as a way of just saying hello to someone. To be cordial. To be respectful.

Whereas if a man is making eye contact with a women in some cultures, it's four flirtatious reasons. And to return that eye contact could be sending a very different message than what the woman intended. So direct eye contact can have several different meanings depending on context and culture.

So what about gazing away or looking down? So when we gaze away or look away here in the US, we're sending a signal to people who've grown up in our own culture that we're distracted or it appears we're not interested. That's the message that we're sending in most cases. In most contexts.

However, once again in an Asian culture, brief, sporadic eye contact would be considered normal and respectful. You would not want to make that direct eye contact. So being respectful in terms of how you make eye contact differs greatly between these two cultures.

Now the opposite of this, of course, would be really long prolonged eye contact, and not gazing away. Here we are quite comfortable in the United States with direct eye contact. But if someone makes eye contact with us too longer, or gets too close and really has an intense eye contact, we start to feel uncomfortable here.

But there are some countries where that kind of eye contact-- particularly between members of the same gender, perhaps two men-- is a sign that I'm telling you the truth. That you can believe me. Trust me. So that's another signal that eye contact can bring whether it's prolonged or simply gazing away.

What about no eye contact? Going from direct eye contact to no eye contact. Actually in many places-- in Asia for example. In Japan if a Japanese woman makes no eye contact with you, that is considered respectful, plight, and appropriate in her culture. So no eye contact at all is sending a very different message there then we would interpret it here. We expect people to make eye contact.

So something as small we might think of as eye contacted, and perhaps not think of it consciously. No one does. These reactions we have to nonverbal signals are instant and emotional because we are so accustomed to them. That we aren't aware that we're sending a message.

So the first step in preventing conflict, of course, is to realize there could be vast differences in the messages we said by something as simple as eye contact or no eye contact. Gazing away or looking at someone for a prolonged period of time. So I've enjoyed spending this time with you today, and I look forward to next time.

  • Oculesics

    The communication style which uses eye contact as a symbol.