The Korean revisited the eye contact post, and he is not happy with the quality upon second look. It is too vague, too impractical, and too short. That's what happens when the Korean blogs after an exhausting day at work, and just want to get it over with what seems to be a simple question.
But this is definitely not a simple question, so he will try again. Cue the question:
In the U.S. I'm used to looking everyone I meet or speak to in the eyes to show respect and that I'm listening. I was told that this is not proper in Korea when in certain settings. What settings would this be? Is it ever okay to look someone in the eyes for a prolonged amount of time? Can you ever look superiors in the eyes or is it only family and people younger than you? Can you not look the elderly in the eyes, even if they are your family?
Confused, but willing to learn
Before we even get to Korean manners, let's start with something that is at the threshold -- why are you trying to learn Korean manners? Presumably, because you want to be polite around Koreans, right?
But truth is, you need not know any Korean manners to be around Koreans. At least within this area, Koreans are opposite of Americans -- Koreans generally do not expect Americans to know anything about Korea, and they are generally knowledgeable about where American culture (at least, the outward part of it) diverges with Korean one. Nearly every Korean knows that Americans do not take off their shoes in the house, do not bow to their elders and dare to stare people right into the eyes. And Koreans do not really have any expectation that Americans will change their behavior in Korea. (Except perhaps the shoes thing. It is beyond the Korean why Americans do not catch onto the idea that wearing shoes indoors in kinda gross.)
In short: Stop worrying so much. The Korean actually made this point several times over -- if you are only visiting Korea for a short period, there is little you can do to offend the locals short of doing something that is obviously beyond all common sense, like getting drunk and picking fights.
But for the people who are staying in Korea for the long term as a member of Korean society, or those who are just generally curious about how eye contact works in Korea, here is a primer on how eye contact in Korea works.
First, in order to understand how eye contact works in Korea, you have to understand how hierarchy in Korea works. Hierarchy is in Korea is not a rigid, hard-and-fast thing -- it is surprisingly flexible and context-specific. Certain places/situations are very hierarchical, others not so.
Here are some very hierarchical places/situations:
- Schools (K-12): So many grade levels! Confucian respect for the teachers! Huge disparity in between the ages of the students and those of the teachers! All of them serve to create a pretty hierarchical situation. Interesting note here is that actual age of the student does not matter -- what matters is the grade level. Two students could be only a few months apart, but the upperclassman is always higher on the ranks than the lowerclassman.
- Military: Obviously.
- Old people (over 60 years old): Both because the tradition demands more respect for old people and because old people demand more tradition.
- Being scolded: Nothing reminds you of your place quite like being yelled at by your parents, boss, etc.
- Huge gap in authority: Meeting the president of your company, for example.
- In-Laws: True for both sexes but more so for women, parents-in-law are treated much more formally compared to one's own family.
In these situations, the appropriate eye contact is: none. If the person on the higher hierarchy is speaking to you, point your body toward that person but dip your head slightly and look into the space a little in front of you. The greater the disparity between the ranks, the lower your eye level. One can glance up once in a while to signify that one is listening and not nodding off.
Here are some situations in which hierarchy does not really exist, or may be more flexible than one might think:
- Young adults: This is true even in a group made up of people with different ages, even more so because American influence in Korea is spreading even at this level.
- Peer group: If you are with your classmates, for example, you would be among your peers. But be mindful about how your peers are defined. For example, a person who is younger than you but in a higher grade in your school is not your peer -- she is your superior. A person who is older than you but began working for your company in the same year can be your peer.
- Constant working relationship: This is very, very situation-specific, so carefully assess the situation. But for example, if you are working with a mid-level boss nearly all the time while you are at work, you probably will have to speak up and ask questions once in a while.
- Immediate family and intimate extended family: Again, depends on the family, but between parents and children, and between sibilings, the hierarchy can be surprisingly lax.
In these situations, the eye contact in Korea is not that different from the eye contact in America. One caveat, however, is that the normal eye contact in America can be much more intense than normal eye contact in Korea. Put differently, an unaware American can very easily cross the line between making eye contact and glaring in Korea. And social meaning of glaring is about the same as in Korea as in the U.S. -- anger, disappointment, rude curiosity, intense romantic interest, etc., depending on the situation. Obviously, they do not make for a comfortable conversation unless the situation is just right.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.