Help me understand the signals eye contact sends in different cultures.

Something I’ve been struggling with the last month or so: patients who won’t look me in the eye. Four of them, older (70+), black, all raised in economically poor rural Mississippi, moved north as adults and are now living in low income housing in Chicago. (While they share all these traits in common, they are not family members and do not, to my knowledge, know one another.)

They seem to like me; they tell my supervisor they like me, request me by name, etc. and they will talk with me quite a bit. But they’re almost always looking away…at the tabletop, at the counter a few feet away, out the window…

What’s the proper way for me to respond to this? In my culture (white, midwestern, urban/suburban Gen X), you look, if not in the eyes, then at the mouth while someone is speaking. Avoiding all eye contact is a sign that someone shouldn’t be trusted, or isn’t paying attention. I know this is obviously not what’s going on here; in fact it feels like the opposite, like they’re showing me respect by *not *making eye contact. So…do I follow their lead and not make eye contact with them? When I try that, I feel very uncomfortable and disrespectful, but if that’s what would make them most comfortable, I’ll work on it. I don’t know what to do because I’m not sure of the language of eye contact in this cohort.

And if you happen to know the “rules” for other cultures/subcultures, especially as they apply to people who aren’t part that that subculture, I’d appreciate hearing about it as well. It’s bound to come up in my life sooner or later.

My guess would be that they are showing submission. Looking someone in the eyes can be seen as a challenge, an attempt to assert dominance. Presumably, if they feel the need to show submission to you, they will not be upset if you look them in the eyes (if you are able to) thus asserting the dominance they believe is your right.

I rather doubt that the meaning of looking someone in the eyes varies much culturally (although its meanings will vary a lot from one situation to another: lovers gazing into each others eyes are not trying to dominate one another). It is more of an instinctual, animal-level thing for the human animal, I think. However, I suppose expectations about social roles in particular social interactions are likely to. Presumably here we are talking about Mississippi blacks, who may be old enough to have grown up under segregation, talking to a white woman in a position of some sort of authority.

(bolding mine)

scratches head I guess? I’m a Registered Nurse doing home care. Is that a position of authority? To me it feels like I’m working for them, in their home, and that would make me the subservient one. But I’m a people pleaser, so that’s probably my issue.

WhyNot, I’m from more or less a similar culture as you, and I have trouble looking people in the eyes not because it’s part of my culture, but because I’m extremely shy and awkward. Many people tend to find this a little disconcerting.

I think you are, actually - you might be telling them which meds to take and when, and what to do and what not to do. They might also be lumping you in with doctors, who I would guess they definitely feel are in a position of authority over them.

I deal with hundreds of college students coming to my office regularly.
Of those, about 20% will rarely, if ever, look me in the eye when talking.
I tend to think it is more of a shyness factor, although some might be intimidated by my age and (supposed) authority.
I often find it helps to smile more at those students. This often this works and they can then look me in the eye - but often there is just no getting around it.
Have not really noticed any racial factors involved - have had just as many white students be somewhat timid and afraid of direct eye contact as the black/Asian/Hispanic students.

Thank you! I guess I’ll have to get used to this notion that I, younger and in their home and assisting them with their health, am in fact the “Authority”. But I have no idea how “The Authority” behaves in such a situation, 'cause I’ve always been the one showing deference! Smiling a lot I can do; I do that pretty naturally.

I feel a bit Sheldon Cooperish here, wanting a clearly defined checklist of behaviors in order to fit into a social role I don’t quite understand intuitively! :smiley:

In some cultures, regarding authority figures by looking them in the eye is considered disrespectful. I understand this creates problems with some immigrants seeking asylum because authorities in the dominant culture perceive their respect as dishonesty.

It might not be you in particular, these people may have been conditioned in that behavior long ago. This happens when there are class distinctions, and goes both ways, they probably don’t expect anyone to be looking directly at them. You are just seeing the remnants of our unfortunate past.

When I’ve worked in call centers, I’ve always found it a bit odd when a caller who sounded elderly addressed me as “ma’am”. Yes, they were southerners.

From my west coast POV, it’s odd to have an older person being deferential (which is how that sounded to me) to a younger one, or a customer behaving that way toward an employee of an insurance company they were dealing with (this was in medical or dental).

You say they are 70+.
Do the arithmetic - when they were raised, the US military was segregated.
Blacks didn’t even use the same drinking fountain as whites.
Black teens were lynched for whistling at white women.

Does this give you some idea of how deeply ingrained the black/white line was?

For a black person to even touch/be touched by a white was unimaginable.
To have one come into their house? A female one?

They all have stories you could not believe.

I doubt if rural Mississippi is even now a picture of racial harmony

I read a study a long time ago (nearly 20 years?) that observed that black people tend to break eye contact while talking and white people make eye contact while talking. The study put this forward as a potential (and only partial) reason why race relations between white and black people was such an insurmountable stumbling block. The authors basically said that white perceive looking away while talking as deception and blacks perceived making eye contact while talking as aggression.

(Again, I can’t find it through Google, so I’m working from memory. At the time, I worked in DC and had an opportunity to see a similar pattern watching people interact on the streets in that area.)

I thought the study was interesting, but have never heard of any other study to verify their conclusions. For all I know, it could have been one of those ‘senior thesis’ things that got enough traction for a mention on NPR and nothing more.

Indeed. It’s cited in diversity trainingas a classic example of non-verbal signals that cause both sides to feel disrespected.

Yep. I get that this is an incredibly complicated mixture of culture and history, which is why I gave so much detail about the background. It’s not just race, or just age. And no, I’ll never know 10% of their stories, although I love to listen to them whenever they’re willing to share.

I believe I’ve read this to be true of some hispanic cultures also. It creates a problem especially for children raised in one culture but going to school in a different one. “Show me respect! Look at me when I’m speaking to you!” says the anglo teacher, demanding two opposite things in the context of the youngster’s upbringing.

ETA: I just remembered where I read this – it was in a book by Deborah Tannen.

And while I’m not black (last I checked), I had serious problems getting used to “American” behavior when I got there. Touch is more forceful than I was used to (you guys touch less often but more forcefully; where we might half-hug you bear-hug), eye contact felt agressive, you managed to feel too close while actually standing further as measured by a tape. My French coworker and I could be practically touching without hogging each other’s space, but both of us had to make strong efforts to remember not to step back from effusive Americans. I’ve known other white immigrants (an Armenian who’d lived in the US since age 9, for example) who mentioned having similar problems. Eventually we all learned to code-switch, but hearing that someone who is over 70 and not a white natural-born American is behaving in a way a wn-bA finds “too submissive” isn’t exactly a surprise.

At one point this came up in conversation and I demonstrated to my American coworkers how they would touch someone to wake him up and how I would. One of my coworkers “went to sleep”, another one was to touch her awake: he grabbed her upper arm and shook her. She went to sleep again. I placed my hand on her shoulder lightly and slowly increased pressure. Oh.