“No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive”

Mahatma Gandhi

A teacher on a small island off the mainland of Scotland was having problems with one new child in the reception class. Amit was of Indian descent and had moved to the Island with his family. His father was to be the resident GP.

The problem that the teacher had with Amit was that she couldn’t get him to look at her. Every day she encouraged him to make eye contact, getting a little bit more intense each time. Finally she lost her temper and hollered ”LOOK AT ME!”

Amit was so surprised and scared that he crawled down under his desk. On his way home, he thought if this is so important to the teacher, I had better go home and practice looking my parents in the face. So that evening, he attempted to stare at his parents, only to be sent to his room for showing disrespect.

What had happened was a clash of cultures. In Britain, eye contact is seen as a part of body language which is essential in communication. It indicates focus, attention and listening together with respect. Non-eye contact is interpreted as indicating deception, slyness and disrespect.

In the Indian culture , quite the opposite is true. Extended eye contact is seen as an affront and a challenge to authority. Only brief eye contact is acceptable within Asian communities where status and respect are of prime importance.

We often hear the words “let’s build respect“ without really thinking what that entails especially, now-a days, where cultural diversity within the workplace is common. It is so important to remember that a person’s behaviour may be in response to their cultural norms and not seen as a direct challenge to authority or insinuating disrespect.