Tuesday, September 07, 2010

When is it OK to Make Eye Contact?

Dear Korean,

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

Dear Confused,

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.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. It is so hard to change this habit. The reverse of it as well. My love still can't look into the eyes of my parents or close friends. Or rather say, sometimes he does, but after a while he turns his head and whole body to me, but still talking to an other person. How long did it take The Korean himself, to get used to eye contact?

  2. *get used to making eye contact

  3. Interesting, no wonder everybody thought I was a psycho in Seoul.

  4. Wow, what a great question, and a great answer. When I was in Korea I too was also very confused about the proper amount of eye contact that should be made.

  5. Not to nitpick, but don't you mean "staring" rather than "glaring"? I mean, staring could indicate intense romantic interest (as well as anger, hostility, etc.) but glaring never could...

    Also, this rule is really flexible if you're a visible foreigner. I make eye contact with people often (because I am doing research and in an interview situation with them) and no one seems to find it strange- in fact, I sometimes find they seem to expect it of me BECAUSE I am a foreigner. I do try to be careful with much older people, though. And more than anything else, I try to read people's comfort level and follow their lead from the beginning of our conversation. If they're not making steady eye contact with me and looking away often, then I do the same.

    1. I agree, and even aome Koreans have tpld me always make eye contact. And if I didn't I was being rude.

  6. "NEVER" seems a little extreme to me. I think it depends person to person and situation to situation. In over two years of living in Korea I know I would feel uncomfortable making eye contact with the director of my school, but with another, lower level boss, I've never noticed any extreme lack of eye contact.

    Talking to my Korean boyfriend next to me, he says that with his family he thinks it's fine to make eye contact. With a boss, maybe he would feel more comfortable making eye contact on and off, but not for the entire conversation.

    And even when I'm scolding some of my students, they'll look at me right in the face, and I've seen them do the same with my co-teachers. Of course the respectful ones always look down, but I don't usually have to scold those ones...

  7. This topic of making eye contact or not is extremely interesting to me. However, my reason is rather different. This isn't exactly to do with Korean or American culture, but in how cultural expectations affect people with certain types of disabilities.
    I have a child with Asperger's Syndrome (usually considered a type of autism). Like many other Aspies, she finds maintaining eye contact while talking to be very difficult. This is mostly because it takes so much effort for her to understand what she's hearing and to express what she's thinking that eye contact simply causes a kind of sensory overload. If someone looks at her too steadily, she'll become uncomfortable and ask why they're "staring" at her. I've gotten used to looking away from her when she's having particular trouble saying something.
    Also like many other Aspies, she finds it very difficult to interpret other people's facial expressions and body language. Looking away as she talks relieves her of the distraction of trying to figure out what the other person's expression might be saying.
    You can imagine, though, how this causes her a lot of trouble when she's talking to someone who's not used to her.
    When I read both the Korean's answer and I'm No Picasso's comment, I felt a bit sorry for young folks in Korea who have sensory or communication issues similar to my daughter's. It sounds like the social rules are changing, and perhaps not in a way that will be of much help to them.

  8. That's funny, I got the same advice about not making eye contact in Japan from my Japanese textbook in college. When I got to Japan, for the first month I assiduously avoided making eye contact with my host parents. Finally my host mother asked me why I never looked at her when speaking to her. I explained about what my textbook said, and she thought it was the most ridiculous thing she'd ever heard. She said my textbook was basically very old-fashioned and that nobody acted like that anymore.

    I've been in Korea for a year now, and the same thing seems to be true here. In my observation most young people have no trouble making eye contact with me. The only exceptions are those who are extremely shy.

  9. After reading yours and Picasso's posts, I am confused as to where I should be looking. How and where do I look away but still demonstrate that I am listening? How do I read the reaction on the other person's face if I'm not looking at them?

  10. My father taught me never to look directly into the eyes of my superiors (grandfather, uncle, etc). First job out of college my American boss complained that I never looked him in the eye, and he felt that I was hiding something. I broke that habit real fast.

  11. lol... getting to know this korean chick and she told me about this yesterday... what a spin out @_@ so hard not to look her in the eyes lol


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