By Elisa Heredia Correa
One Look is Worth a Thousand Words
Frederick R. Barnard
“Looking at others and being looked at by them, is of central importance in social behavior. We use our eyes to study the behavior and appearance of others, and we look particularly in the region of the eyes” (Argyle & Cook, 1976). Gaze is regarded as one of the main nonverbal signals, together with facial expression, posture, and tone of voice. Gazing refers to the act of looking steadily, intently, and with fixed attention, while looking refers to the act of directing your eyes in a particular direction (pediaa.com). There are universal eye behaviors, such as the expression of emotions; there are others that vary between cultures and even among members of the same group, like gazing in conversation, gazing at strangers, etc. This variability may create discomfort or misunderstanding when individuals from different cultures or groups interact. Being aware of cultural differences in visual codes is, therefore, of utmost importance in all social contexts.
Basic principles of visual behavior
The physical appearance of the eyes and the rest of the face, along with the duration and fixation of the gaze, serve as indicators of emotions. Simple emotions like anger and pleasure can be perceived from eyebrows, eyes, nose, or mouth, but complex emotions such as surprise, pleasure and anger, can only be perceived from the eyes. People, for instance, look more at those they like and tend to withdraw their attention from those who don’t constitute a target of special curiosity or interest (Fink, 1986).
Visual behavior is, undoubtedly, affected by personality. Individuals with high self-esteem gaze more at people they are interacting with, whether speaking, listening, or sharing silence, whereas insecure, introverted people engage in less gazing. Gaze may also indicate power and submission. It is thought that when two individuals engage in sustained eye contact, the one who breaks the gaze submits to the gaze dominant. The role of self-esteem is observed across cultures.
Very interesting is the distinction made by Fink (1986) between the two visual behaviors displayed by individuals when cheating or feeling guilty. Some individuals avoid mutual gaze because they perceive the other’s eyes as a source of embarrassment. Conversely, others employ mutual gaze to a high degree even after being found guilty. Besides cheating and guilt, aversion of gaze may be the result of shame, embarrassment, or the need to avoid high level of arousal.
One of the purposes of gaze, besides sending messages, is to receive information –feedback while speaking- and verbal signals while listening, mainly from the eyes and face of the other (Fehr & Exline, 1987). When mutual eye contact greatly diminishes, it means that the interest and attention have vanished and that the time has come to terminate the conversation. Attention is, therefore, an essential ingredient in a successful conversational interaction, and the most common way to show attention is to gaze at the speaker.
Cross-cultural visual code differences
North-Americans, Asians and Latin-Americans differ in their use and interpretation of gazing. In public settings, for example, North-Americans do not look directly at people. They believe that they must respect the privacy of others and never intrude upon their privacy (Córdoba, J. K., personal communication, 2000). Asians follow the same code (Kim, S. Y., personal communication, 2000). Latin-Americans, on the other hand, are known to stare at strangers, sometimes persistently. This persistent gaze may annoy the person being looked at.
When addressing older persons or people of authority, North-Americans look directly into the eyes with longer or shorter gazes, depending on the rank; this is a demonstration of respect and attention (J. K. Córdoba, personal communication, 2000). Conversely, Asians and Latin-Americans lower their eyes, or both eyes and head. Since early childhood, Asians are told by parents and teachers never to look directly into the eyes of an older person or a person of authority; it is disrespectful. They should look around the mouth (S-Y. Kim, personal communication, 2000). To this regard, Argyle & Cook (1976) say:
The use of the gaze in human social behavior does not vary much between cultures: it is a CULTURAL UNIVERSAL… However, there are some differences in cultural norms about looking, notably in how much people should look, and to a lesser extent where they should look. (p.169).
Another cultural difference is related to ways of expressing emotions. Latin-Americans and, in a higher degree, Asians, tend to hide negative emotions such as embarrassment or anger behind a smile. Asians are very concerned about saving face and maintaining harmony and will do anything possible to reach this goal. They may expect that the conversational partner be able to guess their real feelings through their eyes (Lynch & Hanson, 1976). Latin-Americans may either smile or remain silent with an evasive gaze. North-Americans are less interested in saving face; they express feelings openly and use both verbal and nonverbal cues. Because of these cultural differences, North-Americans may find Latin-Americans and Asians hermetic; while Latin-Americans and Asians may think North-Americans are rude.
Gaze is one of the most revealing but intricate nonverbal means of communication. It may either guide one on the right track, or mislead. When one engages in cross-cultural interaction, the task of decoding visual meaning becomes even more complicated if one uses and interprets these based on one’s home culture, which often results in misunderstandings. Lack of knowledge of the different cultural visual codes may bring uncomfortable and embarrassing experiences.
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The student body at Universidad Latina de América (UNLA) is composed of young men and women who come not only from Morelia, but also from other communities, states, and even overseas. At UNLA, the learning of languages and their culture is highly promoted. UNLA students are also offered the opportunity of living and studying in other cities or countries, through its exchange and scholarships programs.
When students go abroad or come to UNLA, they bring with them their cultural orientation which may be similar, different or even unacceptable for the members of the different cultures with whom they share the campus. Fink (1986) states: “Nonverbal cues tells us when a student is interested or daydreaming, thinking or bored, understanding or puzzled, knows what’s what or doesn’t have the slightest idea. Reading this feedback is essential to teaching success” (p.61). Fortunately, UNLA faculty, through their academic acquired knowledge and their own teaching experience have learned to decipher students’ nonverbal cues and, in so doing, to be attentive to their feelings and needs.
Argyle, M. & Cook, M. (1976). Gaze and Mutual Gaze. London: Cambridge University Press.
Códoba, J. K. (2000). Personal communication [class lectures].
Fehr, B. J., & Exline, R. V. (1987). Social Visual Interaction: A Conceptual and Literature
Review. In Nonverbal Behavior and Communication. (2nd ed.). Hillside, New Jersey:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
Fink, M. V. (1986). Louder than Words. The Iowa State Press/AMES.
Kim, S. Y. (2000). Personal communication [personal interview].
Lynch E. W., & Hanson M. J. (1998). Developing Cross-Cultural Competence.
(2nd ed.). Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Pediaa (2017). Retrieved from https://pediaa.com