Thursday, February 21, 2008

Culture Lesson No. 1: Don't look me in the eyes!

One of the first things tourist should know when traveling to the Philippines is Filipinos don't look people in the eyes when having a conversation. Is this information worthy of a travel blog post? The answer is a big YES! Why? Because this fact can be so strange for western tourists that it may set a dark mood for the whole vacation. The fact is, most western cultures require eye contact in conversations. Without eye-contact, distrust and uneasiness sets in. In contrast, in the Philippines, fixed eye contact is an aggression/provocation. I observed myself a few times and I noticed that when I am talking to someone, I prefer to look briefly at the person I am speaking with and then look away.

Actually, I had a big problem about this difference the first few months I was in Switzerland. I noticed that when speaking with some people, I get nervous/agitated. Sometimes I cannot speak at all and most of the time I would act like a fool. It really ruined me socially a couple of times. I was enlightened as to why I get so agitated after reading the book Culture Shock. The answer to my problem is EYE CONTACT! I get so nervous when the people I'm speaking with hold my eyes! Knowing this helped me a lot. Now, I don't get nervous anymore.

Foreigners coming to the Philippines don't know about this and they expect people to look them in the eyes while talking. In Switzerland, if one is not capable of fixed-eye contact while conversing means that one is not honest and so cannot be trusted. I guess this simple difference in culture can cause the lot of misunderstandings between tourists and locals. Maybe, this is the reason western tourists always feel like they are being cheated (ok, sometimes cheating really occurs).

Message to western tourist: We don't look each other in the eye while talking. It is an aggression/provocation. Try not to mistake shyness for dishonesty.


Ms. Confuse said...

i believe in all the wonders of the Philippines

Anonymous said...

Hello there,

I've trained myself years ago to look in the eyes of people of whom I converse it - may it be my boss, a colleague, a friend, a subordinate, or a family member. With constance practice, I have look back with confidence at the person's eyes whom I talk with. But I do wonder nowadays when some people (now I am living in Singapore) would not look me in the eyes too, may it be Filipino or non-Filipino.

I think having eye-contact is an expression of power, control, and persuasion, and yes, as you say, speaking "indirect" honesty and sincerity in one's words.

For me, I love eye-contacts and the little "power play" involved in it. :-D

Cathy said...

Hi Jio,

I still have a little bit of problem but I'm slowly training myself to look into people's eyes....but knowing is half the battle won, right? =)Thanks so much for your comment!