Eye contact in Korea, via The Korean.

The Korean just made an interesting post about eye contact in Korean social settings. I thought it was interesting, not only because I was dealing with this earlier today, as I sat around the table at the coffee shop, straining to show interest in what the other teachers who are less familiar with me were saying (two of whom were head teachers), and also concentrating on their Korean, without it resulting in something that I already know would be considered quite disrespectful, but also because it's something that I've found to be changing, with my students.

My co-teachers, having mostly all spent some significant time abroad and around foreigners, are already aware of what eye contact means in Western culture, and I don't have to mind it so much around them. They're used to me, anyway, and when you get to know people, cultural differences such as this cease to be so important, because we start to judge people's actions by who we know them to be, rather than by their secondary social cues. But when I'm around the other teachers, especially the ones who don't speak English, it's a constant struggle.

I'm American -- when I'm concentrating hard on what someone is saying, I look them directly in the eyes. And when someone is speaking Korean, you better believe I'm having to concentrate. But I've had to learn to direct my eyes completely away in these cases, so that I'm staring at the table or my coffee cup. It's not even that the other teachers would think I was being disrespectful -- they know me better than that -- but it's quite literally distracting and uncomfortable to them.

On the other hand, eye contact is something that I do demand of my students, regardless of their own social training and cultural norms. I've discussed this at length with my closer co-teachers, because it was something I was quite concerned about in the beginning. The first I noticed it was the first few times I had to scold students. As anyone who has ever done the same in Korea knows, as soon as your voice turns stern, their eyes automatically shoot down. I come from a "look at me when I'm talking to you" culture. I realized right away, without being told, that this was a sign of respect here, not the opposite. But I struggled, at first, with being able to feel listened to when I was scolding the students, because I wasn't also being looked at.

Surprisingly, when I mentioned this to Old Co, she told me that, actually, she asks the students to look at her in the eyes when she's scolding them. She said that the looking down is old style, and she also feels as though she connects better with the students when there is established eye contact. I heard her tell the students the same thing many times, when her desk used to be next to mine in the office, and I was being paid a visit by naughty students after school. "She's American," she would tell them. "You must look at her eyes when she speaks to you." Knowing that I was extremely hesitant to ask this of them myself.

Now. In class, I'm famous for asking the students to "give me [their] eyes". When they get too rowdy and worked up and lose concentration, I won't move on with the lesson until I'm able to scan the classroom and make direct eye contact with every single one of them. I do the same thing when I'm about to explain the directions to a game or some other concept that I know is going to be difficult for them to understand. In that situation, I still feel like it's crucial to know that I have their full attention. When I'm scolding them, and they look down, it means something entirely different. When I ask for their eyes in class time, it means they are not looking at their book or their friend or their shoes or out the window, or at a million other super, super distracting things that can shoot their concentration all to hell and make them completely miss my directions.

The students have had absolutely no problems with this. They do get the concept of eye contact = attention. And when it's not one on one, they're not threatened by it. And it works wonders. I no longer have to explain something in front of the entire class, and then follow it by walking around and explaining it again to each table individually. They need to watch me in class to understand what the fuck is going on. My gestures and facial expressions are key to their comprehension. And although they do mostly all start out looking down when I speak to them one on one, they come around with time to looking me in the eye quite naturally when we talk outside of class. And now, after I'm finished with the scolding part of any punishment, and they've been sufficiently shamed, or whatever, I have them sit down and explain themselves to me, while looking me in the eye. Their demeanor changes and they relax. It's not a challenge to my authority, but a signal to them that now we are having a conversation and it's their turn to make me understand something, to say whatever it is they may have to say.

It's not a completely foreign concept. But it has been one that has been interesting to learn how to navigate. There's always a fine line in any given culture between adapting yourself and having those around you adapt to relating to you. Eye contact has definitely been one of the most tangible examples of that since I arrived.

That having been said, I never do more than a quick sideswipe upward toward the principal. There are some lines you just don't cross.


Tiffani said...

I don't know, maybe I'm being hugely rude and unacceptable, but I haven't noticed any eye contact differences since I got here...except MAYYYYBE once in a while they scolded-students-avoiding-eye-contact thing. All of the other teachers look me in the eye 'normally' while we talk...

Actually, I take it back. One situation I HAVE noticed hugely different eye contact rules: having sex. Granted I've only had sex with two Korean guys, but both times, they pretty much kept their eyes closed the whole time, lol. Part of what's great about sex for me is that intimate connection, a huge part of which is eyes contact, and I haven't gotten that from them. :(

Anyway, when I read The Korean's original post I felt really uncomfortable because what he (and you) said doesn't ring true to me at all. And usually I'm pretty good at picking up social cues. Maybe it's just a Busan thing? Who knows. :/

Gomushin Girl said...

One of the reasons I don't read The Korean anymore is that I found most of his information and ideas about Korean society to be at least 10-20 years out of date. It's not information from a Korean person, it's from a 교포 who has been living in NY for ages now.

Anonymous said...

It's strange because I was born in Australia and lived here all my life, but Korean culture is immersed in me. It's to the point that whilst I spend more time at school and speaking English, these rules of respect and such are so ingratiated that when teachers at school are getting me in trouble or something, I'm not able to look them in eye. The teachers obviously think I'm pretending to look innocent or frame me as guilty (well I usually am, haha) and don't realise that's how I was brought up. On top of this, my friends get annoyed at me because when I talk to anyone who I consider my superior, my voice gets higher. It's also higher when I speak Korean in general.
All the Koreans I hang around now use heaps of eye contact, whichever generation they are. My mum studied composition and conducting at Seoul University, so for her evidently eye contact is important anyhow. So it's as if I'm completely the opposite.
The divide is lessening though, I can see that.

I'm no Picasso said...

The thing is, you have to keep in mind how often Koreans might know that something is off about our behavior because of our cultural differences, and try not to let on that what we're doing is strange, in order not to make us lose face.

They definitely notice that foreigners "stare" and it definitely makes a significant portion of them uncomfortable. I only heard about this when I managed to pry a whole load of stuff about the hard times Korean co-teachers may have with their foreign teachers out of a group I was teaching at teacher training last year. Someone mentioned how their foreign teacher makes direct eye contact way too often, and the whole rest of the class nodded firmly in agreement. I was shocked to find out just how much they had noticed it.

They also told me that the foreign teachers would make mistakes like crossing their feet at the ankle while talking to the principal. I had no idea that was even an issue -- no one at my school would ever directly correct me about that, because they know I don't mean it, it sounds nit-picky as hell (even if it is a real issue) and they don't want to embarrass me -- that doesn't mean they don't notice it.

Ever handed something to a superior or elder using one hand? I mean, anything? Did anyone react to it? It's definitely considered rude. Every single time. But no one's going to point it out to you, because that in and of itself is rude.

As for the students not looking down... that's bizarre. Mine all do that every time they're getting scolded. If they dared to look a Korean teacher directly in the eye while they're being berated, they'd more than likely get popped one. That's considered ridiculously disrespectful. It's like issuing a challenge.

Episkia -- I know what you mean. I didn't even realize how integral these kinds of things were until I came here and had to start changing my way of thinking about them. Two years on, and I can eat every item of food, speak a decent amount of the language, navigate the intricate work culture... but I still have a hard time not "staring" at people when they're talking. It's odd.

Anonymous said...

I'm no picasso, just a question, but what's wrong with crossing your feet at the ankle when talking to the principle? Is this when sitting or standing, or both? Also, I'm just wondering, if you can't make eye contact with your superiors (ie. a professor or teacher), if you're talking one on one with them and asking a question for instance, where are you supposed to look? Doesn't it seem odd to be staring behind them or something? Sorry, it's just the first I've heard of this, and I'm pretty fascinated!

I'm no Picasso said...

Anonymous -- I'm not sure what's wrong with crossing your legs at the ankles when you talk to a superior, other than it's just considered a casual posture which is improper.

As far as talking to superiors goes, looking down with occasional glaces upward just to the left or right of the eyes seems to work well. I know to us it seems disrespectful not to look someone in the eyes when we're speaking to them, but we just have to adjust. Looking just past the person's face is generally the norm from what I've noticed. I don't think you need to stress over the occasional direct glance, but you should be careful about "gazing", or staring directly into someone's eyes for a long period of time. It's considered challenging and possibly even aggressive, depending on circumstance.

penniesforposies said...

This is interesting, because I also haven't noticed any particular differences in rules re: eye contact.

I'm Asian-American (not Korean-American) and normally I'm also magnae. Because of that, my Korean friends have been very comfortable with correcting my etiquette, for instance insa and stuff like that. Is the eye contact thing mostly just with Korean superiors in the work place and elders? It seems like it might be a generational thing -- when I meet my older Korean friends, they usually encourage a loose, "college" atmosphere. They won't even let me pour with two hands.

Maybe Koreans are just a little more defensive when a non-Asian foreigner makes too much eye contact, because they view it as more of a challenge? Some of my Korean friends seem very reluctant to explain normal cultural habits to foreigners.