Lack Of Eye Contact As A Culturally Contextualised Problem

I know that the title of this post is quite wordy but this is a topic that has always been of interest to me so I thought it would be good to express my views on it here.

When I was a teenager, I remember reading in an encyclopedia that, in Japanese culture, it is considered rude to give someone direct eye contact as it signifies that they are not worthy of your respect. I remember thinking to myself that maybe I should emigrate to Japan when I was older as there, I wouldn’t stand out too much and my lack of eye contact would be seen as the norm. There are other cultures too where eye contact is viewed in a completely different way than it is in Europe and the United States. (http://blog.joytours.com/2012/12/20/the-role-of-eye-contact-in-different-cultures/) (http://womeninbusiness.about.com/od/businessetiquette/a/making-eye-contact.htm)

 I guess, when I travel to these countries, I will have an automatic advantage in that I naturally find it difficult to give eye contact so, rather than having to remember that the people in the country I am travelling to view eye contact in a different way and having to purposefully avoid direct eye contact with them, I just behave in the way that is normal for me whereby I don’t make eye contact with strangers. 

I find it fascinating that European cultures place such a huge emphasis on something that is actually incredibly invasive. For me, I find eye contact incredibly intense, particularly when it is anything more than a fleeting glance. I have taught myself a huge number of strategies over the years to improve my eye contact because I know how avoiding eye contact makes people think in most Westernised countries. To me, these stereotypes make no sense but I know that’s how other people think so I have had to give the appearance of making eye contact. Why do people see not looking someone in the eye as a sign that they are untrustworthy or have something to hide? Logically, how does that work? To me, it’s more a sign that eye contact makes that person feel hugely uncomfortable and that they are struggling to fulfil some arbitrary cultural expectation because they know how they will be viewed if they don’t. I would never doubt anybody who struggled with eye contact because I know what it’s like. I know that sometimes it can be physically painful to hold someone’s gaze. I know that the eyes are the most expressive part of a person and, often, there are just too many messages in those eyes for someone on the autistic spectrum to look at them and speak to someone at the same time (oddly enough, when it comes to silent staring contests, I do very well, often beating my fellow contestants, but that is a predictable game and involves no speech). Why is it seen as so hugely important in our society? Respect takes many forms and I would consider myself a respectful person even if I don’t always give people the required amounts of eye contact. 

One question I have always held in my mind is, if lack of eye contact is seen as a key indicator of autism in Westernised countries, is the diagnostic criteria different in countries where avoiding direct eye contact is the norm? The Western world’s obsession with eye contact means that people are quick to notice the child who won’t meet their eyes and constantly speculate as to why this is the case. Is it treated as such a problem in countries  which don’t insist on seeing direct eye contact as the norm? It is a question I have always wondered and maybe someone living in a culture that doesn’t place such an emphasis on being able to look into someone’s eyes could answer that for me. It is quite depressing to think that a lot of the negatives associated with Aspergers, such as difficulty finding and keeping employment, are caused, in some part, by people holding on too strongly to the stereotypes of why someone would avoid eye contact and not giving them a chance to progress past interview because of this and that, if we were living in another society, avoiding eye contact in a job interview might actually be seen as deeply respectful and rewarded with a job offer. Funny how the world works, isn’t it?

On a less serious note, I watched a programme about cats recently where the narrator mentioned that cats find direct eye contact threatening and that’s why they tend to blink a lot to greet familiar people. One more reason why I’d love to come back as a cat one day! 🙂

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2 Responses to Lack Of Eye Contact As A Culturally Contextualised Problem

  1. alexforshaw says:

    I’ve found that a narrow focus on a person’s eyebrows mimics eye contact well enough while avoiding the discomfort I feel looking at eyes directly. Even looking at a photo of a pair of eyes is unsettling.

    I did try making deliberate eye contact with my wife once, just to practice. She said that my gaze was “spooky” and that I was staring, so I guess there’s more to it that simply keeping the eyes pointed at the target.

  2. The eye contact thing is weird coz its look at them when your talking to them then look away and repeat so it looks like your paying attention but not staring. Balance and moderation are key here as well as the intensity of your look. Alot of things come into play like the rest of your facial features too. I’m quite expressive at times without realising it or I will be thinking something and my face will reflect that not necessarily what the person is talking about. This can get you into trouble. I do wonder about how it works in other countries but unless we talk to someone I don’t think it will happen. Even though my diagnosis was abroad it was from cognitive processing tasks not did I make eye contact etc.

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