If you’re interviewing for a job and your interviewer is British, don’t be too freaked out if they keep looking at your mouth while you speak. Similarly, if your interviewer is Japanese, don’t be put off if they look you intently in the eye as long as you’re looking straight at them, but seem to follow your gaze when you look away. And if your interviewer is Canadian and they stare you intently in the eye while explaining why the division you’re thinking of joining is the best – that’s just normal.
Eye contact and facial scanning are cultural issues.
A new study by Birkbeck University and the University of Tokyo, published in the International Journal of Behavioural Development, shows that different nationalities fixate on different parts of the face. The research is not specific to job interviews, but careers coaches say that people interviewing in international companies like banks, need to be alert to cultural nuances – and making the right amount of eye contact has been shown to be a key factor in interview success.
The Birkbeck/Tokyo research used samples of British and Japanese adults and asked them to look at computer generated faces. It found that the British subjects fixated far more on the mouths than the Japanese and that the Japanese subjects fixated far more on the eye that was furthest away from them than did the British. Equally, when the computer generated faces looked away, the Japanese adults followed the direction of the face’s gaze, whereas British adults kept staring the face in the eye. This reflected cultural expectations in the West that eye contact should be maintained, suggested the researchers.
Separate research found that facial-scanning cultural norms apply even when people have been raised overseas. 70% of British-Chinese have Asian face-scanning patterns, for example, and only 30% fixated on mouths like the British. Another piece of research found that Canadian subjects maintained longer eye contact than Asians when answering cognitively demanding questions.
Linda Jackson, managing director and co-founder of career management firm 10Eighty said interviewees need to be aware that different cultures have different rules governing eye contact. “In British culture, the rule is that you look someone in the eye all the time when they are speaking and that you look at them and look away when you are speaking. In Asian cultures, the rules are reversed.
“You need to be aware of this and to be careful,” said Jackson. “- Especially if you are a woman. Females in Asia are traditionally more demure around men.”
May Busch, an Asian-American former investment banker at Morgan Stanley, said too much eye contact can be perceived as rude in Asia. “Particularly if you’re considered their superior at work, a lot of people don’t look you in the eye – intense eye contact would be disrespectful.”
“However, the far greater cultural difference is in posture,” said Busch. “You’re unlikely to see an Asian person lounging in a chair like an American would in a work situation.”
American interviewees, take note.