Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Look Me in the Eye: Interpreting Body Language

In an effort to heighten awareness of cultural knowledge, we're going to try a new feature here: highlighting the meaning of a particular piece of body language, interaction, or symbol across cultures. We figure that it won't hurt to take breaks from travel stories to infuse an educational, cultural tip or news from abroad into the mix.

As young children, American & European offspring are taught to look people in the eye. It's a command often heard when parents, teachers, or other authority figures suspect children of lying. Because it's the sheer nature of a child to engage in occasional mischief, you can bet that this is one piece of body language that kids work to perfectly master. As a young adult, this same segment of people is taught to look people in the eye in order to exude interest, truth, and honesty. Whether it be a casual chat with an acquaintance, a job interview, or a heated discussion with a significant other, maintaining eye contact demonstrates you're attentively & intensely listening to the words of your conversational partner. In many situations, it also helps to prove that you're not a proverbial freak.

However, while eye contact reflects a common act of courtesy in some cultures, it suggests quite the opposite for others. In Asian & African cultures, avoidance of direct eye contact is interpreted as a sign of respect & esteem.

I think I prefer the latter interpretation. The next time that I walk down a street in Boston, I'm simply going to assume that everyone is worshipping me as the Queen.


Catherine said...

As a teacher, it is always interesting to consider a student's cultural background. Whereas we are trained here in America to say, "Look me in the eye," some students are trained NOT to, out of respect for their teacher. I wonder how many children have been sent to the principal for being rude, when they have no idea why they are being yelled at. Just another reason why it is important for us all to be open to understanding people and places other than our own. go boozie go.

Lil' Boozie said...

Huh, that is interesting, Cath. Some areas in America are obviously more of a "melting pot" than others (Florida comes to mind). Are there teacher theories/practicums designed and developed around this type of cultural knowledge? Or is it a course of action that potential teachers must initiate on their own?

S Chambers said...

I liked reading your post. This was a great example of how cultural differences can cause communication difficulties.

Prêt à Voyager said...

There was a great illustrated article in Travel & Leisure (i think) all about body language around the world. I'll have to see if I can dig it up. . . I've never really thought about the eye contact aspect of it.


p.s. interesting point Catherine!

Lil' Boozie said...

Thanks for your comment, S Chambers. As mentioned in the beginning of the post, we're looking to make this a regular weekly feature. Feel free to share any ideas on this subject that you may have.


Lil' Boozie said...

Great to know, Anne! Please do send the article along if you're able to dig it up. Perhaps we can use it to draw inspiration & to flesh out future posts on this topic.

I wish that the sociology & anthropology classes that I'd taken in college had placed a stronger emphasis on this subject matter rather than just scratching the surface. It certainly would have been more beneficial!


Catherine said...

I think (hopefully) most schools are aware of many of these differences now. Teachers spend a lot of time in professional development around these ideas, and seem to be working more and more to keep classroom cultural accepting to all cultures. Like anything though, there is always SO MUCH more to learn.

Meriel said...

As a "retired" teacher/camp counselor I'd have loved to have learned more about this particular issue while working with children.

Lil' Boozie said...

You still can! Maybe you and Catherine can form some sort of teacher coalition devoted to this.. I'm sure that there must be some related online forums discussing similar matters. If I come across any, I'll be sure to send them your way.