Making eye contact across cultures: essential communication skill or downright rude?

2 people sitting across each other

Making eye contact across cultures

I was surprised by the response to a recent poll I ran on LinkedIn on the subject of eye contact. The engagement in the poll really compounds how important we generally consider this small (but impactful) aspect of communication.

However, it is crucial to note that when I say that ‘we’ consider this to be a significant marker of good communication, the ‘we’ refers to those who are in my network on LinkedIn. While my network is quite diverse in many ways, most of my connections are from either Europe or the US. Indeed, these geographical regions include many different cultures and the variety in communication styles that goes with that, yet it is fair to say that most Europeans and US Americans consider making eye contact with the person you are speaking with to be a good thing.

We see it as important to build trust, to show you are listening and interested, a way to show respect. Sometimes we even demand that one ‘looks us straight in the eye’ so we can be sure that they are telling us the truth.

What prompted me to run the poll above

Over the last number of weeks, I have been delivering online workshops on Communication Skills for Work to a group of ten women from various language and cultural backgrounds. This is part of the Migrant Women – Opportunities for Work, or Mi-WOW, programme run by New Communities Partnership. Within this programme, the aim of my workshops is to support these women in their job search and career progression in Ireland by offering them the tools to overcome challenges they face due to the language and cultural barrier.

Earlier this week, we were discussing body language in general and also specifically in the context of making a good first impression in a job interview (hence the incorporation of this point in my poll). Of course, making eye contact was high up on my list of things for the participants to consider when trying to make a good first impression in an interview in Ireland.

Luckily, for many of the ten women on the Mi-WOW programme, this was not a problem; the usage and perceptions of eye contact in their culture are much the same as here.

Cultural differences – eye contact

However, not all the participants are so lucky. For some of them, it is totally unnatural to try to make eye contact as making eye contact with someone in their culture is considered utterly disrespectful.

One of the participants shared her frustration with not being able to quickly unlearn and relearn this cultural norm. When dealing with people here, including those interviewing her for work, she knows she risks coming across as a “dishonest” or “shady” character with no interpersonal skills and no interest in what the interviewer is saying/asking. Not exactly what we would call a good first impression! While she knows that she will be able to change this ingrained behaviour, she regrets that it is so difficult to do so quickly. That’s what ingrained cultural behaviour can do to you.

But what’s happening in the meantime? Is she missing out on opportunities that she is more than capable of due to this aspect of communication? Are companies missing out on her expertise, experience, and unique perspective because of unconscious bias against the unfamiliar?

Once people are in our workplace, we can help them overcome challenges posed by cultural differences, however, if we do not know that these differences exist, how can we do anything about it? And if we do not know at the job interview stage, are we less like to even let them in the door?

Unconscious bias

Whether we like it or not, our unconscious biases are ever-present. They are there to protect us from the unfamiliar, even though the unfamiliar might just be exactly what we need.

For inclusive workplaces and inclusive societies, the more we are aware of these small (but impactful) cultural differences, the more we can work towards real inclusion.

Due to my cultural background, I still respond well when people make eye contact with me when we are speaking. However, I am aware of other behaviours and cultural perceptions when it comes to eye contact. I can now better understand the real non-verbal communication that is taking place in exchanges with people from other cultures, and not judge them according to my cultural standards alone. Perhaps we can all do the same?

eye contact

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P.S. Thank you to everyone who took part in the poll. A special thank you to Aoife Lenox, Gillian Fagan and Aslan Umarov for highlighting under the poll on LinkedIn that even when it comes to exchanges amongst people from the same culture (and in a culture where making eye contact is valued and expected) there are other biases that are worth identifying and evaluating.

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