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Certainly, there are many non-verbal cues that have completely different meanings in different cultures. One of the most important means of nonverbal communication in any culture is eye contact—or lack thereof. Eye contact—which simply denotes one person looking directly at another person’s eyes—seems to have strong implications in almost every culture, although what these implications are vary extensively across the globe!
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Eye Contact in the United States
What does eye contact mean in the United States? Here, if you have good eye contact with a person, it generally signifies that you are interested in the person you are looking at and in what that person is saying. If you look down or away from a person rather than meeting his or her gaze, you are considered to be distracted or uninterested in him or her. Also, if you neglect to make eye contact with a person, you may be thought to lack self-confidence.
On the other hand, a person who makes eye contact with another person is thought to be confident and bold (and boldness is considered a good trait!) So, in summary, making eye contact is generally considered a good thing in the United States.
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Eye Contact in Western Europe
On the one hand, the European customs of eye contact—especially in such countries as Spain, France and Germany—tends to be similar to that in the United States. It is considered proper and polite to maintain almost constant eye contact with another person during a business exchange or a conversation.
Yet eye contact also has more flirtatious aspects than it does in the U.S. In the U.S., people often avoid eye contact in crowded impersonal public situations—such as while walking through a busy downtown or riding public transportation. In a country like France, however, a stranger may feel quite free to look at someone he is interested in and try to acknowledge his interest by making eye contact. Therefore, it is important for a visitor to understand the full implications of what he or she may be implying by returning the eye contact initiated by someone else.
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Eye Contact in the Middle East
Although all Middle Eastern cultures cannot be grouped into one class, they do have similarities in their rules for the appropriateness of eye culture. Eye contact is much less common and considered less appropriate in many of these cultures than it is considered in the United States.
Middle Eastern cultures, largely Muslim, have strict rules regarding eye contact between the sexes; these rules are connected to religious laws about appropriateness. Only a brief moment of eye contact would be permitted between a man and a woman, if at all.
However, western women traveling in Muslim areas should not expect that no man will attempt to make eye contact with them. As a matter of fact, their “differentness” may draw attention to them, and men may try to make eye contact with them. They should be aware, however, that returning eye contact will be considered the same as saying, “Yes, I’m interested!” So when in the Middle East, care should be taken in making eye contact with anyone of the opposite gender.
On the other hand, in many Middle Eastern cultures, intense eye contact between those of the same gender—especially between men—can mean “I am telling you the truth! I am genuine in what I say!” Try to observe the eye contact between those of the same gender to see if it is important to meet someone’s gaze when you want to tell them, “Trust me! I’m sincere!”
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Eye Contact in Asia, Latin America and Africa
In many Asian, African and Latin American cultures, extended eye contact can be taken as an affront or a challenge of authority. It is often considered more polite to have only sporadic or brief eye contact, especially between people of different social registers (like a student and a teacher, or a child and his elder relatives). For example, if a Japanese woman avoids looking someone in the eyes, she is not showing a lack of interest nor is she demonstrating a lack of self-confidence; instead, she is being polite, respectful and appropriate according to her culture. So in many of these cultures, you should take care what kind of eye contact you initiate with those who are your social superiors or who are in authority over you, so that you are not considered disrespectful or overly bold.
As you can see, it is vital to know what eye contact communicates before you visit a new culture. Before you travel, you would do well to go to your local public library or bookstore and check out or browse a book about the culture of the country you plan to visit. Learn how to utilize eye contact and other body language wisely so that you are perceived as polite, and so that you can better connect with people in a culture that is foreign to you!
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Avoiding Eye Contact: http://www.flickr.com/photos/foxtongue/83633700/
Middle Eastern Woman: http://www.flickr.com/photos/morning-theft/3248967078/