There is a fascination in society at the moment with crime fiction tv shows-particularly those involving forensic science (NCIS, CSI, Law & Order, The Mentalist…just to name a few). There is something about unravelling a mystery bit by bit, clue by clue, that hooks us into these shows. Along with this comes the mental games, interviewing witnesses and interrogating suspects. We all look for the one that has that shifty look in their eye….or do we?
Eye contact, or lack thereof, is an important tool in communication. However, what it communicates is very different from culture to culture. If we don’t understand the differences, we can find ourselves in tricky situations or making assumptions about others that aren’t necessarily true.
Take for example, my husband, from an Indian background. I used to notice when we first met that he would often raise his eyebrows when saying hello to me. In Australia, that gesture is usually interpreted as a sleazy pick up method (something along the lines of “hey baby”… Yuck!). But where he comes from, it is just normal part of the body language when you greet someone familiar to you. Lucky we worked that one out!
Differences also occur in eye contact in terms of respect. For me, if I respect someone and want to show that I am listening, I will make direct eye contact. I also do that when I am trying to communicate that I am being trustworthy and genuine (e.g. When little kids are asked to tell the truth they are asked to look in their parents eyes). The infamous Australian Kath and Kim show comes to mind here…”look at me, look at me” – google a YouTube clip of it for the full experience of the Aussie bogan accent in all its hilarity.
Anyway, back on track. In other cultures, it is important to look away to show respect to someone, especially when talking about important events or trying to be genuine.
Now, imagine the two cultures described above meeting in a courtroom in one of those crime fiction tv shows. If a suspect was looking away whilst describing his/her version of events, or perhaps looking down at their feet, most westerners would immediately think that person was the culprit, or at the very least, hiding something. What if, in actual fact, they were trying to show respect to the lawyer or judge? The chances of misinterpreting someone’s body language are large and the consequences could be profoundly unfortunate. I recently heard how this situation occurs quite a lot in court cases involving Indigenous Australians, because they do not make eye contact.
There are lots of other cultural factors that can come into the courtroom too (e.g. Cultures that always say yes to try and please people, even if they mean no or something didn’t happen or they don’t agree with a statement).
But for today, think about how you use eye contact, or lack of it, in different situations. Think about how it might be interpreted by those around you. Think about how you might be interpreting others’ eye contact of lack thereof.
Do you have any other examples? I would love to her about them in the comments below.