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
Never, never, NEVER look into the eyes of someone who is in a superior position than you are. This includes everyone who is older than you, even by one year, family or not. This also includes people who are higher than you in a workplace or social hierarchy, regardless of age. (For example, your boss, a judge, etc.) In practical terms, this means that you are pretty safe with not looking into anyone's eyes when you are in Korea.
It is ok to look into the eyes of someone who is your peer (and feel close enough,) or someone who is younger or in an inferior position than you are. But be mindful of how "peer" or "inferior position" 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.
Be also mindful about the message that you are sending when you do look into people's eyes. For Americans in Korea, it is very easy to cross the line between seeing and glaring when you look into someone's eyes. And glaring in Korea means about the same thing as glaring in America -- anger, disappointment, rude curiosity, intense romantic interest, etc., depending on the situation. If you are unsure where the line is, just don't look into anyone's eyes.
-EDIT 9/8/10- I'm No Picasso has a good post discussing the application of this mannerism in Korea.
-EDIT 9/25/10- The Korean revisited this question at this post.
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