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.