Saturday, September 25, 2010

When is it OK to Make Eye Contact -- Redux

Dear readers,

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:

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,

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


  1. "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. "

    NOT TRUE~! Sure some of them or most of them are. In my experience (2 years English teacher) I have broken many Korean etiquette rules and had my character judged upon by this. I tried to plead that I am not Korean and can't follow the customs all the time. They said that is nonesense since I have been in the country 2 years. I was actually told I should act more Korean.

    Just wanted your readers to keep this in mind. Definitely if you work with the older generation you will find yourself having these challenges.

  2. Also this person should not be worried about eye contact. Instead should be worried about nunchi. You can break that with sad face being worn in the office.

  3. And again, I'm sorry to nitpick (because your English is much better than my Korean will ever be, I am sure), but "glaring" means staring while frowning. I think the word you are looking for is "staring."

    Interestingly, as an Anglo-American who grew up used to more or less direct eye contact, I've often found the intense style of eye contact in the US disconcerting (and I would imagine many somewhat shy people in the US do). I find Korea a lot more comfortable in this way.

    One more little thing: I actually tend to get a little annoyed when Koreans assume that Americans or Canadians don't take their shoes off in the house. (This is even presented as fact in Korean elementary school textbooks). This varies drastically depending on the region one lives in (and even what kind of flooring one has!). As an American, I would never dare to step into someone's house without asking what they would like me to do with my shoes.

    1. I was surprised to read that, too. I was raised to always take my shoes off in the house, and so was my mother (although my father wasn't). When I go to friends' houses, I almost always take my shoes off because they do. The only time I leave my shoes on in someone's house is when they leave their shoes on as well.

  4. Joy,

    They said that is nonesense since I have been in the country 2 years. I was actually told I should act more Korean.

    Right. So the Korean had the caveat: "for the people who are staying in Korea for the long term as a member of Korean society". That includes you.


    but "glaring" means staring while frowning. I think the word you are looking for is "staring."

    No, "glaring" also means "staring fiercely." "Staring" does not adequately describe the level of discomfort to which a Korean is subjected when a foreigner insists on making direct eye contact.

    This varies drastically depending on the region one lives in.

    Interesting. Which region? Personally, the Korean has never been to non-Asian-American home that took off their shoes indoors.

  5. Yes. Ok. But I can respect their culture and even practice it but by no means could I ever become Korean. I think the point I was trying to make is that Korean folks should not get into that mindset of trying to change a foreigner into them. I would not try to make a Korean turn into an American back home.

  6. Hmmm. I concede that "glaring" might have "staring fiercely" listed as a possible definition in a dictionary, but I have never heard it used that way. I would never associate "glaring" with romantic interest, for example. When little kids are uncomfortable and annoyed because their sibling keeps looking at them creepily without breaking their gaze, they would say, "Mom, he keeps staring at me!" and not, "Mom, he keeps glaring at me!" (But maybe people in different regions/different English-speaking countries use the word differently?)

    As for shoes on or off in the house, I would say the majority of houses I have visited in the Pacific Northwest had shoes-off policies. If you think about it it just makes sense: it's rainy and muddy for much of the year, and you just don't want that tracked in your house. This goes double for people with carpets (harder to clean). A lot of places in Canada I've been are shoes-off too. It's definitely not as absolute as Korea- if I or a family member forgot something in the house after lacing up shoes we would just tiptoe through to get it. And of course this only applies to private spaces- unlike Korea or Japan, you couldn't ask someone to take shoes off in a restaurant.

    Foreigner Joy- this can be a very frustrating thing about living in Korea. One minute you should try hard to adapt and "understand Korea" (this is usually when someone wants to dump something on you like a schedule change, pay with no overtime, etc.) and a few minutes later you "can never understand Korea because you're not Korean." It's especially annoying when this comes from the mouth of the same person! I'm not saying this style of treatment is limited to Korea, of course- many countries in the world are experts at making their minorities feel crappy. (:

  7. I think it's pretty clear from this post that the rules on eye contact are mainly about power and dominance relations - with a bit of tradition thrown in for the really old. If you're a Westerner in Korea, you're probably not attending school, and definitely not in the army. Probably the only time you want to be careful about looking people in the eye too much is if it's an old person or if it's someone quite senior in a company - and even then you might want to look the boss in the eye just to make them uneasy!

  8. 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

    Unless they are Gyopos, because Gyopos to Koreans are Korean, and shame on them for not knowing how they should act, even if they did grow up in another country.

  9. I also have a hard time with the "stop worrying" comment. Not necessarily regarding The Korean's comment here, as he explained it's just for casual visitors. Instead, I get this answer--or the look of "Why the hell do you care?"--when I ask people why they do something a certain way. I really despise (those of us) Westerners who play what they feel is the trump card: "I'm a foreigner, so it's ok." I'm here to teach English, and it's supposedly expected that this will be a meeting of two cultures, not the domination of either one.

    I will agree with the existence no-shoes policy in America. I'm from New England, and though we could wear shoes, most of us chose to remove them. And we always asked when we entered someone else's house.

    I suppose one of my biggest concerns about learning the culture here is that (I will venture to say) over half of the time, no one thinks to clue me in. Friends, coworkers, etc. just go about their business, do not tell me what's happening, where we're going, if I need money, what's expected of me, how I should dress--nothing. Even during sacred or serious events, they might just disappear and leave me to guess. When I ask questions, they seem annoyed, or think I'm angry. But when we have guests at home, we fill them in on the situation so they can feel comfortable and even participate.

    Don't get me wrong, Koreans are wonderful friendly people. But neither they, nor us, have it all right.

  10. Thanks for the rewrite, I think this post is much more relevant!

  11. The Korean:

    I have to say the "taking the shoes off thing" really does depend on the household and also the weather outside. I am from the south, Atlanta, Ga, and my family did take off their shoes when going indoors if our shoes were wet, muddy, or dirty from being outside. Manners are very important in middle to upper class families in the south. Often times, my friends and I would ask the household head "do I have to, need to, should I take my shoes off?" before entering a home. In Korea the rule is ironclad, but it does happen more than you would think in the States. My parents have a policy of taking off their shoes before entering their home. They have wood floors which makes keeping things clean easy. The option or choice to take off one's shoes is a huge difference between Korea and the U.S. It is also a difference which acts as an excellent metaphor for explaining some very important characteristics of the two cultures.....

  12. In response to Steddy,
    I would venture to say most foreigners living in Korea, "get it" when fellow expats begin talking about the unpleasant or mildly annoying differences in culture here in comparison to their home country.
    I agree that Korea (among numerous other countries in the world with the U.S. definitely NOT withstanding...I could write a pages about Muslims and Mexicans living in the U.S. and their treatment just based on watching the news and reading on the internet) has a double standard that borders on hypocrisy or bigotry. Koreans (physical persons, news media, tv, etc) complain about foreigners atrocious behavior, yet the society and a lot of its laws do not even come close to treating foreigners with rights or respect close to Korean males. So, like Korean Society's written, spoken, and often unspoken policies in regards to global trade, foreigners dating Korean women, foreigners paying higher prices than Koreans for items, legal rights, treatment of police if in an auto accident, etc..the list goes on and on. There is a seemingly double standard where Korea wants to have their cake and eat it too. I know the Korean has blogged about this before, but living and seeing it everyday is irritating. This happens everywhere else in the world with foreigners too, but in Korea given its history towards outsiders, I think it is more pronounced and at times severe.


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