In Korea, it is traditionally rude to look directly into the eyes of an elder/senior/respectable person who is speaking to you, ESPECIALLY when you are getting into trouble. Find out WHY and how you can avoid this easy mistake.
You might think, “Why? What’s the big deal if I’m not saying anything?” But eye contact is just another form of body language, which is a nonverbal way of communicating!
So what are you saying in Korean culture with your stare?
Let’s look at an example of how this cultural difference can cause real-life issues. We talked with a local teacher from Alabama who was upset about the “rudeness” from one of his students, who was from Korea.
Each time the teacher greeted or talked to the student, the student would look away and avoid eye contact. Of course, the teacher thought this behavior was very rude because IN THE U.S. when an elder is talking, you’re supposed to look at them (or look like you’re paying attention). You might have even grown up hearing adults say, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” Making eye contact = paying attention and giving respect.
IN KOREA, it’s the opposite. If you watch k-dramas (Korean Dramas) often, you will notice that characters often speak with their heads bowed or eyes lowered when talking to an elder or superior.
Scene from the Korean television show, Awl (송곳), produced by JTBC, directed by Kim Suk Yoon, and written by Choi Gyu Seok, Lee Nam Kyu, and Kim Soo Jin (2015)
This is because Korean culture says to show respect to a higher person by AVERTING your eyes. Direct eye contact, especially for a long time = challenging authority 👀. The student refused to meet the teacher’s eyes because, in Korean culture, that would have been very rude! Not only are teachers adults and considered elders, but teaching is still one of the most respectful careers in Korean culture. Therefore, the student wanted to show RESPECT by diverting their eyes.
SO WHAT SHOULD YOU DO? Well, first be aware of the situation. In tense situations where you are being reprimanded, avoid staring directly into an older person or superior person’s eyes. A superior is anyone who:
- is older than you (even by 1 year!)
- has seniority in a company/career field
- or holds a respectable position (such as in education, medical, entertainment, or government fields)
To summarize, you should avoid looking directly in the eyes of an elder / superior (like a boss or senior coworker) / or person who is higher on the social hierarchy. You don’t have to STARE at the floor, just adjust appropriately. Or don’t! The point is to understand how you’re actions are being interpreted in another culture so you can craft how you want to be perceived in any situation!
Also, don’t be offended if you find yourself talking to a Korean person who looks more at the ground than your face. As with the student from before, it could be that they are simply showing you respect.