It is hard to believe that in today’s global world there are leaders who neglect to take in account cultural differences in the workplace. Take this example. The leader walks down the hall and begins to assess employees; basing it on if they have eye contact with him. There is a wide range of reactions – direct eye contact, slight eye contact with quick diversion, immediate sideways glance and complete avoidance with head bent downward. His immediate conclusion is that people are not being straight; they are hiding something. Is that true?

Cultural differences are complicated. They may stem from organizational, ethnic and/or religious differences. Some are ingrained; some may be unlearned over time. There can be layers of influences and recognition of them will help us to understand our employee’s behaviors better and not have us take it personally.

Company Culture

A company may have unwritten protocols for interacting with executives. Consider these questions:

  • Am I being consistent with how I communicate with individuals and the organization?
  • Is there history with leadership contact that I should consider? Especially if I am new?
  • Is the organization diverse in its make-up?
  • Do I make people at ease with my eye contact?
  • Is my eye contact different in varying situations?
  • Am I sensitive to how people want to be treated vs how I think they should be treated?

If you are naturally prone to strong eye contact, then people will expect it. They may like it or it can cause some discomfort. Conversely, if it is a new behavior for you, it will take time for people to adjust and accept it. Check to see if there are legacy stories of employees who “got the stare down” and paid consequences – it may explain the hesitancy to jump into strong eye contact with you or there may be other reasons for their reaction.

Ethnic & Religious Cultures

In the United States, we have challenges with our cultural melting pot. Our upbringing plays a large part in how we act and behave. Generally, western cultures view intermittent eye contact as a sign of trust and acceptance. If you travel to Europe, some northern countries deem it impolite to stare at others, while southern Europe is more receptive. Lack of eye contact is a sign of disrespect in Arab countries. In parts of Asia, the opposite is true; strong eye contact is seen as aggressive, rude and a lack of personal privacy. If you are in Latin America, good eye contact is important in business. Add a layer of complexity; some cultures believe eye contact should be limited with women, as a sign of respect. Muslims have to Lower-Gaze after the initial eye contact with members of the opposite sex to thwart lustful thoughts.

Gregorio Billikopf Encina, University of California, sums it up best in his article, Cultural Differences? Or, are we really that different?, “Often, observations on cultural differences are based on our own weakness and reflect our inability to connect with that culture.” Take the time to understand the other person’s perspective before jumping to conclusions….you may actually find that respect is more to the point than lazy eye contact.

Other resources:

Intercultural Communication in the Global Workplace

FindArticles – Showing Good Faith Towards Muslims – discrimination against Muslims in the U.S. workplace – Statistical Data Included
HR Magazine, Nov, 2000, by Marc Adams