Japanese and British use of eye contact
Pernille Rudlin was interviewed by Tadaharu Iizuka, Managing Director of Centre People, regarding differences in Japanese and British use of eye contact for the Japanese language weekly Journey magazine, April 7th 2005.
Iizuka: What kind of experiences did you have when you went to junior school in Japan for six years? I hear that at that age one tends to pick things up very quickly, soaking everything up like a sponge?
Rudlin: The first six months were very tough. Of course I couldn’t understand anything and during the break times pupils from the entire school, right up to senior high school, would crowd round to look at my face or touch my hair. But children at that age are very adaptable and after about six months I was able to speak everyday Japanese and the other pupils had become used to me. I was still rather bad at the weekly kanji (ideographs) test but once I even managed to get top marks for a composition. Even now theme tunes from TV programmes, nursery rhymes and songs come back to me from time to time.
Iizuka: I suppose it was a natural progression for you after your experience of living in Japan to join a Japanese company and work for them for nine years. No doubt the experience helps you in your current work (training aimed at minimising communication issues in workplaces where there are different cultures)?
Rudlin: Intercultural communication obstacles do not only come between the Japanese and the British but also between the British and the French and other nationalities. Even if the nature of the obstacle varies, differences occur. In Japan one also says ‘the eyes are the windows of the soul’ or ‘eyes say more than lips’ but it does seem that the Japanese use eye contact a lot less when communicating amongst themselves. In the UK we have the same sort of expressions and believe that eye contact is an important communication tool. We believe eye contact during a conversation is very important and it comes naturally to us.
Iizuka: I totally agree with you. For example, it is still fresh in my memory that when I first joined a medical supplies company in Japan, the induction training specified that we should not look the client in the eye, and instead aim our eyes at the level of their necktie knot.
Rudlin: Certainly this is one aspect of Japanese culture and I am not saying which is right or which is wrong, just that if you are going to live in the UK and work here, if you do not pay attention to this cultural difference, it will cause friction and may lead to more serious situations.
I heard a of a case a while ago where a British woman complained about sexual harassment in her workplace to her Japanese boss and while she was explaining about it, asking him to do something about it, he spent the whole meeting listening to her with his eyes closed. I have seen this kind of behaviour many times in Japan and understand it, but to this woman, no eye contact meant he was ignoring her, and it simply made her more furious. She even took her case to court and claimed that she thought her boss had been sleeping in the meeting!
Iizuka: So despite the fact that he might have been closing his eyes in order to concentrate better on what she was saying, this was misunderstood to the point where the situation got unbelievably worse. You could also say that staring too hard at someone might be a problem too.
Rudlin: As I said at the beginning, the eyes are the windows to the soul, so it is important when talking to someone to exchange eye contact, to show that you are speaking from the heart. This way doing business and living in the UK will be that little bit more enjoyable.
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