Cultural Excellence

If Eyes Are the Window to the Soul…Close Your Window

Understanding body language norms, particularly eye contact, is crucial to maintaining personal safety abroad.

While traveling, be aware of how your body language is perceived by other cultures.

When you travel, body language that you consider “normal” may not be acceptable in another culture. One of the strongest components of body language is eye contact. Have you ever tried conversing with someone who doesn’t maintain eye contact? It’s tough. Without eye contact, it’s virtually impossible to connect with others. The power of eye contact is often explained through the expression”eyes are the window to the soul”. In some cultures, locking eyes with another person may signal that you want him or her to approach you. In other cultures, sharing eye contact will be considered as extremely rude. No matter where you go, eye contact carries a different meaning.

Eye contact is an especially strong indicator of interest when it comes to flirting. For this article, I will be writing advice with women in mind, however, all genders can also benefit from body language awareness.

Throughout my travels, eye contact miscommunication has plagued me repeatedly. I habitually smile at others when I make eye contact. This never meant anything to me- it was just a habit. While traveling, men from different cultures tended to misinterpret my eye contact as an invitation to approach me. In other words, when I accidentally made eye contact for 1 millisecond with the dude staring at me from across the room, oops, now I’m flirting.

The purpose of this article is not to scare you or to convince you to walk around with your eyes shut to avoid eye contact. Rather, this article is to raise your awareness of how you will be perceived differently when you enter another culture. Most travelers don’t even realize how powerful their eye contact is to those around them.

If you accidentally encourage someone to approach you, and that makes you feel uncomfortable, never hesitate to enforce your personal boundaries.

However, do not be surprised if the person who approached you is confused by your rejection. Some people will use anything as an excuse to approach you, while others might genuinely make a mistake based on your body language. In some cases, if you happened to hold eye contact, and then reject someone, you’re sending a mixed signal. That is why understanding eye contact across cultures is crucial- recognize the cultural disparity and clarify your signal.

Although this advice is particularly helpful for women, regardless of your gender or sexual orientation, eye contact can be used to manipulate you. Street vendors, gypsies, and scam artists will use eye contact to grab your attention and approach you. My personal rule is to be very, very suspicious when anyone approaches me. Even a child could be a skilled scam artist looking to pick your wallet. I will repeat: if someone ever makes you even slightly uncomfortable, cut eye contact immediately, remove yourself from that situation, and alert an authority if necessary.

There is no compromise for personal safety. It’s better to look away and walk away than to lose control of the situation. Eye contact is one of your greatest tools to protect yourself and connect with others.

Do you have any stories about eye contact or body language misinterpretations abroad? The comments are yours.

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