Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Guest Post: Look Me in the Eye and Say That!

by Kathy Lyon

Yesterday I was riding along in the tram, staring out the window absentmindedly, and it happened again. I caught a passerby's eye. This inadvertent eye contact seems to happen all the time here, and it startles me every time. Then there's the staring. And not sexy come hither looks, but just some unknown person who clearly feels perfectly comfortable observing you as you wait for the cashier or while you read the paper on the train.

This just does not happen in the US. Looking a stranger right in the eye is an invitation or a threat. Looking at directly at a stranger for more than a few seconds, staring, means you are evaluating that person as a partner or an enemy and you want them to know it. (It can also mean you're crazy.) These actions are never neutral and accidental eye contact is really pretty rare.

Not here in Switzerland. However, I get the feeling that looking at a stranger here is relatively neutral. Maybe that's because the (German speaking) Swiss are accustomed to much more prolonged eye contact than Americans. There's the toasting ritual, where you look the other person right in the eye and toast them by name (repeated in pairs for the whole table). And then there's the expectation that when meeting people you will maintain direct eye contact for the whole introduction and ensuing conversation.

I had read about this, and I made every effort when we were looking at apartments and opening our bank account to demonstrate my probity and general good egg-ness by looking people right in the eye for the whole interaction. I couldn't do it. Especially not with the male bank manager. It just felt much too intimate.

These kinds of cultural differences are tough. Eye contact is not something we usually think about or try to consciously control. The same is true for the physical distance we maintain from others (jammed hip to hip on the train or carefully maintaining a micro-millimeter separation?), or for speaking volume in public, and for hundreds of other little things we just never think about. But all or any of these can push another person's cultural buttons.

Good to know, in abstract at least. I say tomato, you say Tomate. Not so easy in real life. Hey! Stop staring at me!

Kathy Lyon is an Expat Living in Switzerland. She writes about her adventures on her blog TwoFools in Zurich.
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M'dame Jo said...

Interesting. I've probably made several Americans uncomfortable! Luckily, my banker was Polish, so we could stare at each other and add little horizontal bars to our 7s, and no one was hurt ;-)

Jessica said...

LOL - that is great, M'dame Jo. I have no problem with staring myself but I think I have learned to be ok with it over time. Different cultures definitely have different levels of comfort when it comes to eye contact.

As for the 7's - I do that too. Perhaps that is a European thing? I picked that up in Germany, I think. ;)

E said...

I knew about this too before I moved here, but it is still very unnerving. People *look* at you when you are passing on the sidewalks. It feels so odd! I understand and accept it, but it still makes me feel nervous.

Kathy said...

Okay, I do the little bars on the 7's thing too. I also making the swooping angled start to my 1's. 'Cause then I get to feel all acculturated and stuff.

I guess I'll get used to the eye contact over time too. Maybe when (if?) if I ever get a job here and become a productive member of society instead of a shiftless, unemployed, layabout trailing spouse... (kidding, really)

E, I guess that the upside is that we get to stare back.

Stephersplatz said...

I lived in Vienna for a while back in college and they do the same thing there. We called it the "Vienese stare" and it definitely freaked me out at first...


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